A student artwork celebrating gay rights was removed from a classroom at Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School in Athens, Georgia (image courtesy Athens Pride)

A Pride-themed student artwork that once hung on the door of a fifth-grade classroom at Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School in Athens, Georgia became the subject of controversy this week when it was removed by school administrators and reportedly likened to a Nazi symbol.

The artwork, featuring the words “Gay is OK” against the background of a rainbow flag, was removed on January 21 at the request of school administrators after a parent complained, according to a dispatch from the student and family’s lawyer, Jeffrey Jackson. Then, in a meeting with the teacher, the dispatch alleges, the school’s Vice Principal Sandra Scott “compare[d] the artwork to swastikas” as Principal Dr. Bipul Singh “stood by in support” of the comparison.

The incident has prompted widespread calls for accountability from the school district, including a letter issued by National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) urging the administrators to apologize and restore the artwork. 

“This silencing of student expression is inconsistent with freedom of expression principles and violates the public school’s First Amendment obligations,” NCAC’s letter says.

A representative from the Clarke County School District has not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment. In a statement issued by District Acting Superintendent Brannon Gaskins, he acknowledges that the situation “could have been handled with more care, thought, and attention” but disagrees that the staff member who referenced the Nazi symbol should be disciplined. The statement also notes the drawing was removed out of a parent’s concern for “its potential to become a source of bullying of her child.”

But a leaked audio recording of another meeting the next day between Principal Singh and the teacher has prompted further questions about the school’s commitment to building a safe space for LGBTQIA+ students. The recording, in which the teacher’s voice was disguised to protect their identity, was uploaded to YouTube by Jackson and made public along with a transcript.

In it, Principal Singh expresses concern about the artwork, saying that “children are going home and asking questions to parents who are…not ready to have that conversation at this age,” and asks the teacher to move the artwork to a more “private” place.

The teacher eventually agrees, but notes there are “several parents [and students] that are trans,” adding that “just because somebody’s uncomfortable doesn’t mean that you need to hide who you are.”

During the meeting with Singh, the teacher also took issue with Scott’s reported invocation of a Nazi symbol.

“The comparison between the flags and the swastika I think was an extremely ignorant comment, because they are just very widely different,” the teacher tells Singh, who responds that “the history of the swastika is different than the history most people know.” 

“But I mean, at the end of the day, you think of swastika and that’s what you think of, like Nazis – and genocide,” the teacher says.

“Again, we have to agree to disagree,” Singh responds, adding that “history is different,” and suggesting at the end of the conversation that the teacher should “research that.” 

For some parents like Jami Mays, a longtime Athens resident with a kindergartner at Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary, the statement released by Acting Superintendent Gaskins rang hollow and felt “infuriating.”

“You know, if you really care about the LGBTQ community, doing better requires accountability for harm,” she told Hyperallergic in an interview.

Mays says she has made repeated attempts to get more meaningful answers, like “filing open records requests or CC’ing literally every board member or person in the district office.”

“The district is really tight lipped. I mean, it’s almost like you have to, like, take out a billboard, just to get a response on some of this stuff,” she added.

Mays says teachers and other students at the school have rallied in support of the student this week by wearing something rainbow colored every day. She also organized a “Rainbow Chalk Day” at the elementary school for students and parents to gather outside last Saturday. A petition started by another member of the school’s community demanding that the district remove Singh and Scott from their positions alleges that the artwork incident “is only the latest report of discrimination by the administrators at the Athens elementary school.” 

One update to the petition contains a video from January 28 in which Principal Singh can be seen popping rainbow balloons that were delivered to the lobby of the school along with a card that says “Gay is Ok.”

Local LGBTQIA+ advocacy groups have also been calling for action, says Cameron Harrelson, Vice President of Athens Pride.

“This really showed us that we have a lot of work to do, and that these issues are still very prevalent, in our schools, businesses, and numerous facets of our city, and county,” he told Hyperallergic.

The group is partnering with the original creator to sell the artwork on t-shirts. The funds raised will be for Athens Pride youth initiatives to be determined by the student.

How adults in the room respond to this, says Harrelson, will send a message to the children who are watching, and listening.

Parent Jami Mays agrees.

“I believe that children are capable of knowing the truth,” she says, “and the truth is that a child in a classroom full of children, who many identify as queer, or who have parents who identify as queer, was told that their art wasn’t appropriate for the classroom.”

“And when my own child asks why, I say, I don’t know,” she added. “Because I don’t.”

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Amber Cortes

Amber Cortes is a writer and journalist based in Seattle. Find her other work at: www.youneverknowradio.com.