LHS students hang civil rights poster in school

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LEWISTON — A poster containing a social justice message that has been the source of some controversy across the state is now hanging on a wall on the second floor of Lewiston High School.

The poster, in 10 parts, is the work of six students who wanted to prompt an in-school dialogue about social justice in the wake of recent deaths of black men.

The lead poster reads #blacklivesmatter, a hashtag recently embraced across the nation. Nine smaller sheets of black paper show quotations from now-deceased black men written in white pen, including 18-year-old Michael Brown’s statement to Ferguson officer Darren Wilson: “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting,” along with Brown’s name and his age.

Some other quotes are from John Crawford, 22, who was shot by police in Ohio in September, and Kimani Gray, 16, who was shot by officers in Brooklyn, N.Y., last year.

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The students taped their poster to the wall near the cafeteria on Monday, without first obtaining permission from school officials, and the school principal suggested that it be removed until permission was received.

The students went public, telling the Press Herald on Tuesday — a day there was no school because of snow — that they had been told to remove the poster, igniting a flurry of competing emails and phone calls to the school and to Superintendent Bill Webster about whether the poster was appropriate for a school environment, and also whether taking down the poster was a violation of the students’ civil rights.

On Thursday, senior Chandler Clothier clarified what she had been told after hanging the poster. She said an administrator “suggested” it be taken down on Monday. She worried about personal consequences if she didn’t, Clothier said, so she decided to take it down. There was no formal request to remove it.

When students returned to school Wednesday, Webster said he would schedule a meeting to review the poster with the students and consider permission to hang it. That meeting was held at 2 p.m. Thursday, and after about 45 minutes six students, Webster and civil rights advisor Paula Gerencer came to agreement that the poster should be displayed on a bulletin board in what is considered the “civil rights” hall at the school.

The poster temporarily was hung on the wall but will be moved to a locked bulletin board.

“I feel like my voice is being heard,” Clothier said, glad to have launched some awareness about social justice issues that are important to her.

“Our main objective was to start a dialogue and a conversation,” Clothier said, “and I think we’ve done that.”

The group, with Webster’s help, also decided to host a community forum at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 15, at the high school to discuss some of the questions raised about the poster.

At the school Thursday, Webster said school officials never expressed any objection over the content of the students’ poster, and only asked that the girls follow the process to get permission to post it. In that process, though, there were a lot of questions — and some anger — about the poster, its message and whether that message was appropriate to display in an educational environment, Webster said.

The January forum will give the community a chance to talk about those issues, he said, and he hoped that some of the people all over the state he has heard from will consider participating.

“I commend the students for the action they’ve taken,” he said, to highlight the issue of social justice and for the courage to speak freely about their desire to discuss their concerns. “These are our future leaders,” he said, and their participation in the forum will help the community understand whether the poster’s message is appropriate for public schools and to talk about students’ rights to free speech.

Clothier, the designated spokeswoman for the student group Thursday, said the girls initially hung the poster near the cafeteria so a lot of students would see it, but after meeting with Webster and Gerencer she is satisfied with the poster’s new home in the civil rights hallway.

“We’re not saying white lives are any less important,” she said, “just that black lives do matter.”

Clothier said fellow LHS students have been very supportive of their public stance on the poster, and she was pleased that their actions have prompted a dialogue about social justice and civil rights.

Webster said he was pleased by various in-school conversations about the poster, and that school officials were supportive of the students expressing their political beliefs. “We’re respectful of their right as Americans,” he said.

In addition to Clothier, the students who worked on the poster were seniors Muna Mohamed and Kalgaal Issa, and juniors Iman Abdalla and Zakiya (who asked that her last name not be published).

jmeyer@sunjournal.com

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