An Indiana high school is on its third day of virtual learning after students staged peaceful protests against the school’s decision to remove a class project that expressed views about police brutality and racism from a school hallway. Student resource officers—cops that patrol school halls—were apparently offended by the teens' projects, which were based on the 40-year-old comic book V for Vendetta.
The students were sent home after they protested in person at the school on Monday, in response to a conflict with school resource officers, or SROs, who disagreed with opinions the teenagers expressed in a class project based on V for Vendetta, a graphic novel about a revolution against fascism. Students were allowed to interpret the themes of the work freely, within the theme of modern-day issues in America; some chose to write about race, police brutality, and Black Lives Matter, while others wrote about gender identity and sexual orientation.
Their projects were moved from the school hallway to inside a classroom after this confrontation with offended SROs.
“So originally we made the posters as a project for the book we were reading (V for Vendetta) a lot of my peers decided to go along the lines of police brutality, and BLM,” Gabrielle Butler, a 16 year old junior at Muncie Central High School who completed the project, told me in a text message. “The police officers felt offense to it. And what started as a peaceful conversation ended up as a disagreement with a lot of untrue statements. We the students noticed how the police officers were acting and heard about our posters being removed from the hallway. A few students got together and had a discussion about what was going on, and created a protest that so many students came to support for the fact they didn't agree either.”
“This feels like a targeted attack,” one student said in a video of Monday’s protest. “There are plenty of gay students at this school, and plenty of Black students. We shouldn’t be scared to come to school.”
The students, angry at the posters being hidden from public view at the school, peacefully protested with signs and spoke to a group gathered in the school on Monday. On Tuesday, they were forced to stay home and attend virtual learning classes.
Katey O’Connor, a teacher at Muncie Central High School who assigned the project, started placing the students’ posters in the hallway November 8. One of the posters showed a caricature of a snarling cop, with the names of shooters and shooting victims written around it, as well as quotes from V for Vendetta. Throughout the week, according to a public Facebook post by O’Connor, other teachers stopped to take photos of the posters, but she claims that no one made a complaint. On Friday, however, O’Connor wrote that several SROs stopped to make comments about the posters and confronted one of the students about their contents.
"The display created a disruptive discussion between a student and school resource officers [SROs] that the student and other observers found offensive," Andy Klotz, chief communications officer for the school, told the Star Press. One student filmed the unmasked SROs gathering around the posters while they discussed the display with staff as several other students watched and listened.
“Our main objective is to have all students feel safe, secure and respected while at school so that they are able to participate to their fullest potentials without undue distraction,” Klotz told Motherboard in an email. “It is also important for our students to be heard. The students protesting have stated concerns and they want action taken so that change occurs. We are obligated to make that change happen where it is warranted after taking into view all relevant perspectives.”
O’Connor, the teacher who assigned the project, wrote on Facebook that she saw SROs speaking with one of her students about their poster and stepped in.
“I noticed the 3 officers observing and discussing the posters amongst themselves. They appeared to be trying to debunk various posters,” she wrote. “When the officers began talking to the student who created the poster in question, I listened carefully because she seemed visibly uncomfortable to me because I know she respected them and they were clearly not happy.” O’Connor wrote that the group had what she felt was a productive conversation.
School resource officers are armed career cops that are assigned to schools—they have the authority to make arrests, and even use Tasers and batons on children if they see fit to do so (including even for bad grades and tardiness). Their presence in schools has increased since the 1990s, even as human rights groups like the ACLU claim that SROs disproportionately target students of color and students with disabilities.
“[Students] felt that the school officers had a racial bias. And so that in itself made them feel unsafe,” Quinnith Bouton, a Muncie Central High School student, told local news outlet WISH-TV. “I think there is a lack of education in the sense of people of color in general. And I believe that it is appropriate to discuss these topics as it affects many of us every day in their everyday lives,” they said.
After the conversation with the SROs, according to O’Connor, she attended a meeting she had requested with Principal Chris Walker and Assistant Principal Rhonda Ward to discuss faculty’s perceived reactions to the project. During that meeting, she wrote, Ward and Walker said that Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita wrote a letter on November 11 declaring Black Lives Matter “unequivocally a political organization,” and while consideration should be given to First Amendment rights, “the Office of the Attorney General strongly encourages public school corporations to update policies in light of this opinion to ensure classrooms remain politically neutral and applied in a consistent, uniform manner.” This was the reason, according to O’Connor, given for the removal of the posters from the hallway.
In a letter to parents obtained by WISH-TV, the Muncie school board said that while the protest on Monday was constructive and peaceful, no more protests would be allowed at the school:
“With regard to our return to in-person instruction, in order to ensure school safety for all and to permit the educational process to move forward, there will be no more in-school protests allowed. However, the Muncie Human Rights Commission has organized a peaceful protest to take place after school on November 23. Protestors will march to City Hall and back to Central’s football field. Once we return to in-person schooling, if students decide to protest in a disruptive manner when they should be in class, they will face appropriate disciplinary action.”
The school is investigating the situation in the meantime. "Muncie Community Schools takes the concerns of our students and parents very seriously, and will continue to look into the incident,” Klotz told the Star Press. “Once the investigation is complete, the district will make its findings known."
This follows a nationwide battle between school districts, parents, and surrounding communities about “critical race theory,” an academic concept that’s become shorthand for education about minority groups and the issues they face, and has recently been used by conservatives to ban educators from teaching students about racism and historical events like slavery. Eight states have anti-CRT legislation now, with 20 more states introducing plans for similar legislation. Earlier this month, a school board in Virginia voted to ban several books about LGBTQ+ stories, and threatened to burn “sexually explicit” books.