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Alaska: Students See Red as High School Papers-Over Sexual Art Images

A red paper barrier was placed over student art works at Palmer High School in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District, Alaska’s second-largest public school district. School administrators covered the creations of 16 students in the school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program on the grounds that the material included “nudity, homosexual relationships [and] gender/transgender identity”[1] among other potentially controversial themes. 

Palmer High School, with 900 students in a district that enrolls approximately 16,000, is one of 40 schools in Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. The city of Palmer (population 6,000) serves as the borough seat, and ranks in the top ten of Alaska’s communities by population size.[2]

The art exhibit has been an annual event at Palmer High for over ten years, with IB students fulfilling their degree requirements through college-level art projects intended to foster critical thinking and engagement with their peers and others in the school community. Placement of the art works in the school’s upper commons, a public lobby accessible to all visitors, led to some unanticipated engagement when “a parent passing through the school at an after-school event didn’t like what they saw and complained to the school, district, and state legislators.”[3]

Palmer principal Reese Everett ordered the red paper barrier and defended the action, saying that “an issue arose out of respect for individuals that might use the facilities in the evening...They didn’t have a chance to have the option of viewing the works or not.”[4] He then offered the IB students the choice of moving their creations to the school library or removing them entirely until an official evening event for invited viewers.  The IB students objected to having their works moved to the school library and, under protest, yielded to the removal of their images until the official opening event.

Several IB students and their peers protested the principal’s ultimatum, with some hanging signs on the vacated upper commons display boards with messages such as, “Art is a way to speak our minds.”[5]

Although the students’ work ultimately reached its intended viewers when uncovered for the official opening, many of the IB students were upset by the administration’s decision to restrict access. “I’m hurt,” said IB junior Joy Pollard. “I wish [the complaining parent] would have come to us instead of the school district and talked to us instead [so] we could have explained” the meaning of any sexual references in their creative work.[6]

Teachers also weighed in on the controversy. Palmer art instructor Shelli Franckowiak defended the students’ right to expression and raised concerns about the school climate for consideration of ideas related to human sexuality: “What precedent does it set? As an educator that is my big question. What is OK in our English classes for students to read? What masterworks can I show with my art history students? Where does it stop?”[7]
 


[1] Suzanna Caldwell, “In Alaska, School Veils Student Art Show after Complaint,” AlaskaDispatch.com, April 12, 2013, accessed June 14, 2013,

<http://www.alaskadispatch.com/article/20130412/alaska-school-veils-student-art-show-after-complaint>.

[2] U.S. Census Bureau, State and County QuickFacts: Alaska, accessed June 14, 2013, <http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/02000.html>.

[3] “Protests After Alaska School Censors Student Art Show,” Blog of the National Coalition Against Censorship, April 17, 2013, accessed June 14, 2013, <http://ncacblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/17/protests-after-alaska-school-censors-student-art-show/>.

[4] Caldwell, “In Alaska, School Veils...”

[5] “Protests After Alaska School Censors...”

[6] Samantha Angaiak, “Palmer High School Artwork Prompts Controversy Among Parents,” KTUU.com, April 12, 2013, accessed June 14, 2013, <http://www.ktuu.com/news/palmer-high-school-artwork-prompts-controversy-among-parents-20130412,0,7874447.story>.

[7] Caldwell, “In Alaska, School Veils...”

  

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