Community members get a look at controversial Works Progress Administration murals that date to the Great Depression at George Washington High School on Thursday, Aug. 1, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

S.F. mural debate follows students during first week of school

Classes started Monday at George Washington High School, but the fallout of a debate over a controversial mural at the school that made national headlines over the summer could still be felt Wednesday — drawing the ire of some parents and city leaders.

On Wednesday morning, a tweet published by the parent of a George Washington High School junior alerted the school’s community and several school board members of at least one person who appeared to have been surveying students entering the school about the mural — a move that was condemned by district leaders and some parents.

The person was described as a woman handing out flyers — the content of which is not known to the San Francisco Examiner at this time — and questioning students about their support for the mural.

“[My child] told me that the woman asked her, do you support the mural? She said ‘no’ and the woman diverted her attention to the next kid walking up,” the parent said in a message to the Examiner.

After a vote in June to paint over the New Deal-era “Life of Washington” mural housed in the school’s lobby drew intense backlash from arts preservationists and the school’s alumni association, the San Francisco School Board earlier this month reversed its decision, voting to cover it with panels instead. The mural includes imagery of genocide and slavery, which some students and parents at the school have deemed offensive and inappropriate in a school setting.

Others who chimed in online Wednesday called on the district to increase security at the school, noting that reporters had visited the campus on the first day of school to interview students.

“I feel like everybody including the media should be respecting the basics of what students need in first week of school — socially, emotionally and academically,” said Amy Anderson, the mother of a student who has supported removing the mural. “Having the presence of media and people flyering in support of the mural is distracting them from being able to connect with one another inside their school community and is getting in the way of them getting to their classes and learning.”

Anderson demanded “extra efforts on every level in the school district” to protect the community at her child’s school, “knowing that this has been an issue heightened by the media that is getting attenion by white supremacist groups.”

San Francisco Unified School District spokesperson Laura Dudnick said in a statement to The Examiner Wednesday that all schools have a site visitor policy, and that each school’s principal “has the authority to prohibit conduct or activity that may interfere with student safety, interfere with instruction, or otherwise disrupt normal school activities.”

People, however, are within their rights to “gather outside a school on public sidewalks and interact with people outside a school so long as their activities are not illegal,” said Dudnick. School officials cannot prevent individuals or groups from protesting, campaigning or distributing flyers and interviewing students off campus.

An additional security guard was added at the high school due to construction unrelated to the mural, she said.

Dudnick said that the district is aware of concerns shared by parents on social media, but said that George Washington High School’s principal did not report any concerns from parents on Wednesday.

Members of the school board, however, said that soliciting students — particularly during the first week of school — was highly inappropriate.

“Can’t begin to tell you how upsetting this is, but will get to the bottom of it,” School Board Commissioner Gabriela Lopez said in a tweet in response to the parent who raised the issue on Wednesday. Lopez was one of three commissioners who this month voted against covering the mural with panels, demanding that it be painted over.

She later told the Examiner that she was told that individuals seen at the school on Wednesday were passing out “pro-mural flyers” from a nearby sidewalk , but did not enter the campus. The soliciting, she said is “an unfortunate way to start off the school year.”

Commissioner Alison Collins, who also supported painted over the mural, agreed.

“It’s a school, it’s not a museum — I think the alumni association in their advocacy want access to something they value. But I believe they are creating an environment in which people are feeling entitled to drop in whenever they want to. The students can’t learn if it’s not a safe space.”

The high school’s alumni association, along with arts preservationists and others interested in keeping the mural intact and uncovered at the high school who have organized as the Coalition to Protect Public Art, said that they were not affiliated with any of the individuals at the school on Wednesday.

“Those who are not parents and don’t have official business at the school should not be there during school hours,” said Jon Golinger, the coalition’s executive director.

In the wake of the board’s decision in June to paint over the mural, the Coalition threatened to place a ballot measure on the topic before San Francisco voters in March 2020. Golinger told the Examiner on Wednesday that the ballot measure might still be considered, but has lost its urgency following the most recent school board vote.

Lope Yap Jr., vice president of the high school’s alumni association, also condemned the “suspicious surveying” at the school.

“It definitely wasn’t from us. The only appropriate way for me to do [a survey of the student body] is through something internal [working with] the school system,” said Yap.

He added that the association is planning to host an educational event within the school this fall for t students to educate them about the mural’s history and the present dilemma. The group would also ask students to fill out a survey before and after the event to gauge their support for the mural.

“It’ll be just for students not for the community and we think that’s the best way to do it because there’s been so much attention on the students but they haven’t really been heard in a neutral, objective way,” said Yap.

The debate over the mural does not appear to be dying down anytime soon. On Wednesday, The City’s Historic Preservation Commission revived an effort to designate George Washington High School as a historic landmark, which in effect would hamper the district’s ability to make physical changes to the mural.

The school was nominated for the designation last year, but the effort was derailed by the debate over the mural and after the school board voted to reject the nomination. The nomination is expected to move before the Board of Supervisors for review.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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