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Augusta County School Board pledges to review options to ban ‘offensive’ student artwork

Augusta County
(© Rex Wholster – stock.adobe.com)

The two Augusta County School Board members who tried to remove the art project of a queer student from an art show at Fort Defiance High School might want to Google “Streisand Effect.”

A handful of people, almost entirely other art students and their parents, a relative trickle, would have walked past the artwork, titled “Not Enough to Save You,” at the school’s Sunday afternoon art show.

But because the school board members tried to get the artwork removed, to the point of forcing a special called 9 p.m. Saturday night board meeting to serve that end, now the whole world can see firsthand what the student was saying about growing up in a religious family, and in a county, that is obviously not welcoming to its LGBTQ+ kids.

not enough to save you
Photo: Facebook

“This piece is representative of the idea that growing up queer meant you couldn’t be saved by God,” the student wrote in an artist statement posted to her gallery page on Artsonia.com.

“I grew up in a religious background, and that influenced this project,” she wrote. “The idea of the glowing red cross is to represent evil in the eyes of God, and the bleeding rainbow represents devotion vs. identity. Overall, the piece gets across the message I want it to, even if it is a little in your face.”

Good art is supposed to be “a little in your face,” so no need to apologize there, kiddo.

That the outside world came to know about the artwork is because of the online hissy fit from school board members Timothy Simmons and Sharon Griffin, and a private Facebook group that calls itself United Parents of Augusta County.

United Parents of Augusta County Facebook group Griffin, posting on the United Parents of Augusta County Facebook page Saturday afternoon, claimed that “a few of us on the school board” – it would later be obvious that “a few” translates to “two,” herself and Simmons – were concerned that the artwork, which she described as “painting over pages from the Bible with a message that lies at the heart of the Christian gospel,” would somehow run afoul of “our policies of ‘harassment or discrimination based on gender, perceived race, religion.’ Something that ‘has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working or educational environment.’”

Translation: artwork created by a queer student to tell her story of growing up in a religious background that makes her believe that she can’t be saved by its god is itself “intimidating, hostile, or offensive,” if not all three.

As opposed to the message being: it’s “intimidating, hostile, or offensive” to grow up in a religious background that makes you believe you’re going to hell because you are who you are.

This is what you get when you elect an ideologue who highlights her commitment to “Biblical Christianity” in her campaign platform to the school board.

Simmons, posting to his Facebook page Saturday afternoon, also called the artwork “offensive,” and wrote that the school board is “working with our legal counsel” to review its options to have it removed from the art show, and added that he would “be asking for a review on the process for approving pieces that are included in the art shows. Is there a process in place and, if so, how do we honor students’ free speech while also creating a culture of respect within our schools?”

This was the background for the email that was sent by the school system to the local media at 2:47 p.m. Saturday announcing the special 9 p.m. school board meeting, which cryptically informed us would involve a “student matter.”

Despite both Simmons and Griffin going into great detail on Facebook about the specifics of what the “student matter” was, the school board voted to go into closed session to discuss the matter, hiding behind the exemptions in the Virginia Freedom of Information Act that would seem to have been rendered moot by the board members’ public discussions.

Good luck getting a judge in Augusta County to force a government body to follow FOIA law, of course.

FOIA law is written with the presumption that government meetings should be open; local judges interpret the FOIA law to let the county do whatever it wants to do.

After talking public business behind closed doors for just short of an hour and a half, School Board Chairman David Shiflett announced that the board was taking no action on the art display, though he pledged to “look at possible policy adjustments or other possible solutions to help remedy a problem like this in the future.”

Simmons sang a similar tune in a post to his Facebook page after the meeting.

“The Board met and agreed to work on a policy that will address issues like this going forward,” Simmons wrote. “As I mentioned previously, it is important that our students have freedom of speech but also that we maintain a culture of respect within our schools. This is a delicate balancing act, but the Board is committed to finding a solution.”

Here’s where I append, sarcastically, it would appear that the school board will be lobbying congressional Republicans for a repeal of the First Amendment.

Seriously, these people couldn’t have done a better job of helping the student artist get her point across about how hard it is to grow up queer in Augusta County.

And because they made a public issue of trying to silence her, now the world knows.

Streisand Effect.

Look it up, folks.

Chris Graham

Chris Graham

Chris Graham is the founder and editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1994 alum of the University of Virginia, Chris is the author and co-author of seven books, including Poverty of Imagination, a memoir published in 2019, and Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, and The Worst Wrestling Pay-Per-View Ever, published in 2018. For his commentaries on news, sports and politics, go to his YouTube page, or subscribe to his Street Knowledge podcast. Email Chris at [email protected].