Updated: Jan 26, 2022
By Joe Johnson
The recent removal of a student’s LGBTQIA+ artwork from an Athens schoolroom has been condemned by Clarke County School District’s leadership, but some stakeholders do not believe that does not enough to address the issue.
In a letter Tuesday morning to Schools Superintendent Xernona Thomas, who is on medical leave, and also acting Superintendent Brannon Gaskins, a concerned citizen called for a probe into the artwork’s removal from the classroom at Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School.
To express his disappointment with Gaskin’s response, Cody Nichelson on Wednesday wrote to members of the Board of Education, with copies sent to Mayor Kelly Girtz and other county officials.
“This is not a John Grisham mystery novel,” said Cody Nichelson, an Athens resident and member of the local LBTQIA+ community.
“The investigation is fairly simple,” he said, “Did the OAES administration force a teacher to remove one student's artwork from the classroom simply because it featured rainbow colors and the words "Gay is OK?" If the answer to that question is yes, then the school's administration should be terminated immediately.”
According to Nichelson, the artwork was removed after a parent complained to the student’s teacher and the school’s assist principal likened it to a Nazi Swastika.
The letter prompted Gaskins to write the following: “Dear Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary Community, I write this letter to acknowledge a situation at Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary that has caused a great deal of anger and frustration in our community.
“It has been alleged that a piece of student artwork was compared to Nazi symbolism. We have investigated the situation and are working to address the issues with all parties involved. To be clear, we condemn this comparison and discrimination in all its forms,” Gaskins wrote.
“The Clarke County School District embraces diversity and inclusion for all students and staff,” he said. “We stand with our LGBTQIA+ community and are dedicated to proving our commitment to diversity and inclusion.
“To that end, we will continue having sensitive and appropriate conversations with our school communities.”
Nichelson stated that he did not believe the interim superintendent went far enough in condemning the artwork’s removal.
“They do not belong in an academic environment — period — much less in a position of authority over other educators. They shouldn't even be working with students; they are doing more damage than good,” he said.
“Brannon's statement doesn't even acknowledge that part of the incident. Those elements are ignored,” Nichelson said. “Much in the same way that the OAES administration sought to eliminate LGBTQ students' existence in the classroom, Brannon found a way to erase them right out of this situation.”
It is great that CCSD "stands with our LGBTQIA+ community," as Brannon wrote in his statement. But those words ring hollow when administrators who harm LGBTQ and Jewish students remain in positions of power,” according to Nichelson. “The students, parents, faculty, and staff of Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary and all of CCSD deserve an administration — from the top, down — that is courageous enough to protect our students and take action to make sure our schools are among the most inclusive in the country and a safe space for our children.
“Let me be clear: If Brannon refuses to take action, then he, too, does not belong in any position in our school system. Period. Until that work is done, I will continue to engage with local media, as well as state and national advocacy groups to bring additional attention and resources to this issue,” Nichelson said. “I appreciate this group's work and hope there is a quick, decisive resolution — including the reinstatement of this student's artwork so that it can be displayed alongside their classmates'.”
One local advocacy group chimed in on the matter Wednesday afternoon.
In a statement, Athens Pride + Athens Queer Collective said their “leadership met with the educator involved in the recent incident at Oglethorpe Avenue Elementary School yesterday and was able to connect with the parents of the child whose beautiful art was removed from the classroom.
“We have offered our organization’s full resources to support and uplift them all through what has been a trying time- a time that has reminded us that even in Athens, safety is not always guaranteed,” the statement noted. “We must continue to demand that our school administrators be held accountable for using harmful rhetoric. Homophobia and Anti-Semitism along with all forms of hate and discrimination should have no place here.
“The student artist will help Athens Pride + Athens Queer Collective determine how all funds from our fundraiser will be spent,” the statement continued. “Additionally, we will work with the student and families directly regarding the many requests for tee shirts featuring the art. The time for this will come, but for now please remember the art belongs to the student and their family deserves the utmost privacy as they navigate their next steps and how to address this situation.
“Athens Pride + Athens Queer Collective remains committed to not only creating and providing safe spaces, but expanding our mission to truly affect the lives of LGBTQ+ individuals in Athens. Our children are currently watching…what will you do to be a part of the solution?
“We will keep you all updated in the coming days as to how you can get involved, offer support, and how each of us can do the necessary work before us.”