Muncie students protest censorship of BLM in school

by Mario GaonaPhoto by MacArthur Clark

Originally published at Liberation News

Students at Muncie Central High School marched from the school to Muncie City Hall Nov. 23 after their school’s administration commanded a class to take down student posters that mention the Black Lives Matter social movement. Language arts teacher Katey O’Connor had instructed her class to create posters reflecting issues in society after the class read “V for Vendetta”by Alan Moore. For the project, students imitated V’s recruitment posters seen in the graphic novel. The posters were on display in the hallway outside the classroom from Nov. 8-12 for public viewing.

One poster creates particular controversy

Emma Martin, a junior in O’Connor’s class, created a poster with a depiction of a police officer as a grotesque pig dripping blood from its mouth, surrounded by names of victims of police violence. While the students were working on their posters in the hall on Nov. 12, all of the school’s three school resource officers confronted Martin because they were offended by her caricature of a police officer and her acknowledgement of the brutality highlighted by the ongoing BLM movement.

O’Connor saw the SROs circling the hall, “trying to debunk various posters” amongst each other, before descending on Martin. They cornered her while she worked and pressed her on the topics in her poster, causing what a Muncie Community Schools’ statement called a “disruptive discussion.” At the protest Nov. 23, several witnesses of this discussion characterized the arguments made by the SROs as “offensive.”

Melissa Zimmerman, another teacher and participant in leading previous BLM protests locally, revealed that all three SROs denied the existence of police brutality and disputed statistical proof for overwhelming racial biases in policing.

According to O’Connor, she and Zimmerman intervened in the discussion when Martin and other students appeared “visibly uncomfortable” because of the officers’ inappropriate behavior towards the students. O’Connor posted an account of the events that said the officers came away from the conversation feeling that it was “productive” while, in contrast, the class was “noticeably upset” afterwards.

“The things revealed to me that day broke my heart. I’m one of the only Black teachers in the school. They felt comfortable and emboldened to say the things they did. I was told ‘police brutality is not a thing,’” said Zimmerman.

Administration intervenes

Shortly after this conversation ended, the principal and vice principal ordered O’Connor to take the posters out of public view because of the “disruption” the SROs initiated, citing Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita’s recent opinion as justification for their ban. Rokita’s letter, Official Opinion 2021-2, condemned any appearance of BLM-related language as “too political” for public schools by conflating the “Black Lives Matter” slogan with the organization Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, which named itself after the BLM movement for political recognition. At Tuesday’s protest, O’Connor disputed the administration’s agreement with the opinion, saying, “It should not be political to be anti-racist.”

The students’ concerns about police issues are indeed relevant in school, regardless of their political nature, especially when there are police in their school carrying out the same injustices the posters illustrate. For example, they’ve used intimidation to silence political dissent and target Black, Latino and LGBTQ students.

Students resist the repression immediately

In response to the administration’s orders to remove the posters from the hallway, students from O’Connor’s class peacefully protested through the school all day on Nov. 15 in the main atrium to demand the return of the posters to the hallway and to call for accountability for the SROs. Attendance at the protest grew as the day progressed, and some faculty even encouraged the protesting students, who led chants and speeches in support of BLM and other related social issues.

Muncie Community Schools reacted to the protests by switching to online classes, effectively shutting the school down for three days just to prevent protests, only going back to in-person school on Nov. 19. During the e-learning period, the City of Muncie’s Human Rights Commission called a protest for Nov. 23 to take place after school to prevent students from protesting in the school again. Even though the protest was called to control when the protest happened, Martin and dozens of other student protesters used the opportunity to demand action from their administration.

Martin spoke out against the statements the SROs directed at her, and said she was made to feel ashamed of her poster, despite her lasting convictions. She explained how the SROs shamed her by telling her that they “wouldn’t have expected the poster from her” in front of her peers and mentors, and it made her feel guilty even though she knew she did nothing wrong. Martin concluded that being assigned a project from a teacher gives her a right to present that project, and that the administration’s and the state’s invalidation of this right amounts to a form of censorship, invoking the themes of “V for Vendetta” once again.

Speakers also connected deeper, systemic injustices with the struggle against school censorship by linking back to the SROs repeatedly dismissing the priorities and concerns of oppressed communities. Student Gabby Butler demonstrated the connection to LGBTQ rights by comparing the ban on BLM to a ban on Pride flags that was instituted in schools in nearby Bluffton. “We are not stupid. We know where this is heading. The whole, ‘These topics don’t belong in schools,’ line that is fed to us,” said Butler.

A few of O’Connor’s former students spoke about how the issues with SROs that current students are facing are the same as the police issues they face after graduating. Local parents shared concerns for their children’s safety due to the history of persistent police violence and police immunity.

AG Rokita responds to the Muncie student protests

The AG’s office stretched the truth even further by stating, “Our school resource officers, like our police and other first responders, are the best. They should be celebrated and respected for keeping students and faculty safe, not demeaned and ridiculed.”

The AG’s office puerile depiction of police as defamed victims expects MCHS students and their supporters to ignore that school police went out of their way to demean and ridicule students last week, and that the protest was in part a response to the cops’ brash behavior, not the other way around as Rokita’s secretary suggests. Organizers even invited administrators and politicians to the protest to open mutually respectful dialogue, but received no response from anybody in power.

The struggle continues

Organizers plan to keep this fight up to ensure their voices are heard. The protest ended with students making demands of the administrations of the school and the school corporation. The demands are:

  1. O’Connor’s class posters were to be put back on display by Monday, November 29.
  2. Students will be provided a clear and proper avenue to discuss issues and seek change in the school by the end of the 2021 Fall semester.
  3. The SROs involved will not return to their positions at MCHS.
  4. MCHS will actively seek out a diverse staff and administration to reflect the population of the school.
  5. Any new SRO hired for MCHS will attend an openly disclosed and culturally competent sensitivity training.
  6. Students will be provided a list of current resources for their mental health and safety while at school.
  7. The school handbook needs to clearly define what slogans, flags, or symbols of social movements are allowed or not within the school.
  8. The school handbook needs to reflect the disciplinary methods and actions necessary and required when students have broken school guidelines.
  9. MCHS will release a statement on whether or not it agrees with the AG’s opinion on November 12, 2021.
  10. Students will be provided a safe environment in school.

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