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Artless Censors: The Flagler’s School Board’s Misplaced Allegiance to “Staff”

| December 18, 2015

flagler school board pledge flag

The Flagler County School Board, seen here pledging to the flag, was made to pledge its allegiance to a school principal as if in a loyalty oath at a meeting last week. (© FlaglerLive)

You may have heard by now of the minor controversy involving Flagler Palm Coast High School senior Patrick Conklin’s painting of a not-quite nude woman and the cluster of petals substituting for a fig leaf in her Venusian parish. The piece was universally acclaimed by Conklin’s teacher, by the leaders of two local art galleries, one of which displayed it, by most of those who saw it, and by Conklin’s principal, Dusty Sims, who said of the work: “It’s awesome, it’s an amazing piece of art, we never want to censor kids with their work of art.”

pierre tristam column flaglerlive Except that Sims did just that. He censored it by barring it from display in any school galleries, where other distinguished student art is displayed. His reasoning was that it would not be “in the best interest of the school” to display it. That doesn’t mean anything. It’s a fig leaf for not having justifiable reason, the authoritarian mindset’s version of “because I said so.” Sims later explained to me that the school is a “community, general audience facility” that at times has younger children in its hallways. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean younger children or their parents should veto the display of “an amazing piece of art.” FPC is not their refuge. It’s high school students’ learning environment.

Nevertheless Sims had the right to make the decision he felt was best. He made it. He stuck by it, and Superintendent Jacob Oliva stuck by Sims (though he told Conklin Friday after a meeting with him that he was pondering the question and will make a decision in January). Where things got ugly and disturbing was at Tuesday’s school board meeting. A local Republican operative called Edward Fuller, who’s old enough to remember the McCarthy era, addressed the board and after briefly recalling Sims winning the state assistant principal of the year, which is neither here nor there, asked board members “whether you support Mr. Sims or the negative campaign lodged against him.” Fuller’s demand stank of a set-up, as if someone on the board or the administration didn’t want this issue to go any further.

Of course there never was a campaign against Sims. There was a debate about his decision. Those who didn’t like it criticized him, as is their right. Those who did like it praised him. There was plenty of both. It’s what debates are about. It’s what open, intelligent communities should be about. Fuller’s demand though sought to shut down that debate with what amounts to a loyalty oath to the principal, which has no place in educational settings. We love and respect our principals, within reason. We don’t bow and submit to them, or worship them, no questions asked. They’re not cult figures. They’re administrators. If anything, we hold them to account first and foremost, as the school board should.

But that’s not what the board did. Four of its five members lined up to pledge their allegiance to Sims and to “staff” in general, putting respect for authority for its own sake ahead of the particulars of this case, which warranted further discussion and at least consideration of a school board policy, not silencers. (Even that allegiance was self-serving: If you’ve ever witnessed the adversarial negotiating sessions between the board and its unions, you’d quickly realize how fluid that allegiance is, at least to employees below managerial levels.)

patrick conklin rebirth and enlightenment

Patrick Conklin’s watercolor on the theme of ‘Rebirth and Enlightenment.’ Click on the image for larger view. (2015, used by permission)

Only Andy Dance qualified his statement by noting that the issue prompted good debate about art. But he, too, fell in line behind Sims, praising administrators “for all the decisions they have to make during the day,” as if anyone was suggesting otherwise. “Keep your chin up, we’re behind you, we support you 100 percent,” Dance said of administrators. Really? Are principals that infallible? Are board members’ responsibility to blindly cheerlead or to also provide oversight? Is supporting students not at least as important, if not more so, than supporting “staff”? And where was the board’s broader welcome of a discussion or of an appeal from the student?

Colleen Conklin, who chairs the board, was the lone dissenter. Patrick Conklin is her son, though she’s on record speaking up against censoring art with her notable confrontation with Oliva five years ago over the censoring of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She speaks up out of conviction even if personal interest is involved here. And she had it right.

“I think it’s kind of sad that the conversation has resulted into whether you support Mr. Sims or you don’t support Mr. Sims,” she said. (She had no idea who Fuller is, so she did not mention what ought to be mentioned: that as a Republican operative, he may be laying the groundwork for a fellow-Republican’s campaign against Conklin, a Democrat facing reelection next year. Fuller’s crass cleaving of the board is a way to create the sort of wedge issue a candidate can exploit.) Of Sims, Conklin said: “I’m very supportive of him. I think that the decision that he made was a decision based in fear, and I don’t agree with the decision. I find it as a form of censorship.”

More importantly, principals and schools are not islands unto themselves, let alone fiefdoms. “When principals make decisions, they need to understand it is a statement about our entire system,” Conklin said. The statement this principal made is at odds with the district’s respect and celebration of student arts. It’s not enough to be supportive of routine, of the usual pier scenes and inoffensive self-portraits or clever color schemes. What makes the difference in this self-professed “premier learning environment” is support for work that manages to challenge boundaries without relying on shock. That’s what Patrick Conklin’s piece did, and what he was forbidden from sharing with his fellow-students. How ironic that his theme was “rebirth and enlightenment.”

The school’s statement in this case was to cower from enlightenment, missing a great opportunity to put Patrick and his work at the center of a constructive discussion about art, women, body image, respect. And the school board’s reaction was to submit to an administrative edict at the expense of a student’s expression everyone had recognized to have been artful and mature. So much for awesome when a principal and superintendent are challenged.

I hope Patrick Conklin appeals his case to the school board, and that the board will see its way to a more intelligent discussion than rah-rah cheerleading for staff and, eventually, a serious policy on handling student expression–art, theater, dance, music–that lives up to art’s purpose: to move, to please, but also to challenge and, at times, to make us, alleged adults especially, uncomfortable. A “premier learning environment” should demand no less of its students, with 100 percent support.

Yet somehow I have little hope that the school board will see past its allegiance to authority or hear the voice of free expression over the din of its circling wagons. This mockingbird looks dead.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Follow him on Twitter. A version of this piece aired on WNZF.

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21 Responses for “Artless Censors: The Flagler’s School Board’s Misplaced Allegiance to “Staff””

  1. No Whining Zone (John Sbordone) says:

    Bravo Chairperson Conklin. I think I remember when our education system, our academic environments were about challenge and inquiry and debate. I know we encourage this at home. How do our students learn to think when they are not permitted public expression of their ideas? What are we afraid of? What we should fear is that those who can think and challenge the status quo must go elsewhere for their intellectual stimulation; that they find the school bland and self serving; that the epitome of acceptable vision is so unencumbered by spice and flavor that it provides no flavor at all, while the outside world assaults their minds and senses with provocative stimulation. When schools are relevant, academic excellence soars.

  2. Glooby Gloob says:

    People who think this painting is inappropriate for high school students would be shocked if they ever saw anime. Also, Streisand effect.

  3. YankeeExPat says:

    Is the guy with the Rifle there to ensure everyone Pledges?

    Rifleman’s Creed[1]
    This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
    My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life.
    My rifle, without me, is useless. Without my rifle, I am useless. I must fire my rifle true. I must shoot straighter than my enemy who is trying to kill me. I must shoot him before he shoots me. I will…
    My rifle and I know that what counts in war is not the rounds we fire, the noise of our burst, nor the smoke we make. We know that it is the hits that count. We will hit…
    My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its strength, its parts, its accessories, its sights and its barrel. I will keep my rifle clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other. We will…
    Before God, I swear this creed. My rifle and I are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life.
    So be it, until victory is America’s and there is no enemy, but peace!

  4. Fredrick says:

    Pierre… good article. We are on the same page with this one. I am afraid this could mean. End of times? Apocalypses??? Maybe just a little good old man made global cooling??

  5. Rich Mikola says:

    Why does anyone care about this? At least he’s not wasting his time playing video games! We have evolved to the point where we have to be entertained 24/7 by micro processors. In the end, the computers will win.

  6. Sheila Skipp Zinkerman says:

    The painting in question is an abbreviated contour painting. Look closely and you will see: 2 crescents; 1 trapazoid; 1 triangle; and 2 cylinders. The beauty is in its’ simplicity. There is nothing whatsoever in this painting that warrants censorship. Therefore the School Board staff owes no allegiance to Principal Sims. As an alternative, they should reopen the conversation about art and censorship with students and other interested parties. Indeed, there are many different ways of “seeing” and interpreting art and censorship should never infringe on the viewer’s right to see.

  7. PCer says:

    The School Board owes its allegiance to doing what is best for students – not what is best for principals. The administrators at the schools owe their allegiance to doing what is best for students – not what is best for teachers. The teachers owe their allegiance to students, not to themselves or the parents. If we all do what is best for students and children, then in the long run we will all benefit.

  8. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know if I can express my thoughts on this subject………who came up with the idea that a vagina……or a penis or a butt or a nipple were lewd and should be covered?….what if these “nasty” body parts were changed and now a nose had to covered at all times?…or that fingers were now to be considered lewd?…body parts are body parts…….give me just one reasonable answer why a vagina should be viewed in a different way than a ear………..sounds silly………..BUT…….WHY? ….this may not even be published because I used ” dirty ” words……..what a world……….

  9. Anonymous says:

    I’m blown away with the talent that is exposed at our schools. I have seen works that by far shows skill set that some established artists don’t have. Flagler schools have shined with respect to their art curriculum through the creativity of our students. It’s disappointing that censorship quells the creative spirit of these kids. This piece that Patrick created shows such talent and creativity and should be rewarded with positive feedback. I hope he continues to create. It’s unfortunate that in the bigger picture, art is relocated as a low priority in this county by our govt leaders. I guess it shouldn’t be so surprising that censoring this art work is happening. The great part of this spotlight is that our educators at the top will think twice about dampening the spirit of creativity expressions. But I thought this would’ve been the case since the “To kill a mockingbird” fiasco. It’s Art…COME ON MAN!

  10. Dave says:

    The kids in high school see way more than that online. Good grief.

  11. Common Sense says:

    With school dress codes in place it is most inappropriate for art as this to be displayed. This may fly in a collage where the audience is more mature, but it has no place in a local school system. This is nudity and it clearly shows where this young mans mind is at. I agree with the teacher and going over the teacher’s head to the school board is wrong. The school board shouldn’t give special treatment to a student who is a son of a school board member, the school board should use common sense. Of all the things to draw about–nudity in public schools should be the last on the list!

  12. PCer says:

    I suppose we should bring back sumptuary laws and throw the 1st amendment out the window.

  13. scoff the cuff says:

    One canvas, one school. Let’s move on.

  14. Algernon says:

    Too bad “common sense” showed none. Where would he or she display the “collage” suggested? Certainly not in a local college. It might offend their sensibilities.

  15. Brad W says:

    I’m sure this coming year’s School Board election will be very interesting. It’s not a personal thing with Colleen Conklin, but I don’t think she’s right for our School Board. BUT unfortunately neither are the nutjobs or the ones obviously just looking for $35k/year.


  16. Anonymous says:

    Common Sense – What are you talking about??? Your statement, if I use your frame of thought should not be in this thread among the grownups. I saw no nude photos nor did I see any representation of lewdness or dirty thoughts. I see sophistication in the way this piece of art is rendered and presented. I agree with anonymous above. Why do we put so much negativity on penis and vagina. Don’t these kids have them? Prudish as your statement seems, you may have to keep your children or grand kids out of church and turn off the tellie cause your statement seems clueless.

  17. Kendall says:

    Vulgarity, inappropriateness and beauty are certainly in the eye of the beholder. So sad when something so evocative is hidden from view so discussion never had the opportunity to evolve.

  18. TBG says:

    I would like to see an elected citizens oversight committee for the school board as well as school board employees, ie, admins and teachers. The board obviously needs adult supervision. And I would want that committee to apply the same No Tolerance views and dictates and punishments to those they govern. Such abuses as this nonsense would disappear so fast it would make their heads spin.

  19. Kathryn says:

    recess is over!¡! New !!!!! appreciative adults elected . spoiled narrow minded dictators must be ousted.

  20. nomad says:

    OK, I’m a prude. I find this discomfiting to look at and I KNOW that my kids would be abashed if they were to encounter this on display in their school. Several months ago on a visit to a museum, we ended up in a gallery dedicated to feminism. Oh good grief! What a mistake! We hurried through the exhibition without looking at most of it. My kids were more disgusted than I was at some of the stuff on display. Recently, I have seen ads in the subway advertising the museum of erotica or sex or some such name, which I have no intention of visiting. I’m sure glad that I have that choice. And admission is free at these places. Not everyone is comfortable looking at naked images in public (or private, too). And schools SHOULD NOT be the venue to impose or force such images on society to look at. One person’s freedom of expression does not trump another person’s freedom to not be exposed to said expression.

  21. Jack Howell, PhD says:

    Much Ado About Nothing

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