Look Up Challenge

A group of students led by a High School teacher has painted several ceiling tiles as part of the “LookUpChallenge!”. The tiles depicted and displayed around the high school demonstrate a lack of cultural competency and may be considered divisive by members of the student population. Slogans like “Black Lives Matter” and “Science is Real” have political and ideological connotations that the student creators may or may not be aware of. At any rate, some parents are concerned that these slogans will be seen as hostile by some members of our school and community. We cannot improve equality by putting up sayings, slogans, and symbols, no matter how well-meaning the original slogan was, that divide or serve as microaggressions.

Several concerned parents contacted school officials with specific requests: 1) that no tiles be placed that could be interpreted as potentially hostile, 2) that a vetting process be put in place and publicly shared with parents to ensure that this is the case, 3) that all sayings and slogans on the tiles are publicly posted for review by parents before they are installed, and 4) that the students who made the tiles in the video received education about how those slogans and sayings are not promoting equality and inclusion and may actually accomplish the opposite.  It is essential that the students realize that the objection is not due to hate or hostility or lack of inclusion, but due to diversity of culture and beliefs. It is also incumbent on school officials to make clear to students and staff that political activity and proselytizing is forbidden on school grounds. Board policy states (4213. D.)  “employees shall not campaign on school property during duty hours on behalf of any political issue or candidate for local, State, or National office…” 

Following are some examples of letters written to school officials by parents:

“Science is real” is a slogan shown on a tile.  It is a philosophical debate whether the world, the mathematical model, or our interpretation of it is the most real.  I am a scientist, with a PhD in physics, and have worked in both theoretical physics and neuroscience—the two fields at the heart of this debate.  Saying “science is real” has nothing to do with diversity or equality or even the philosophical debate about what is real.  It is an activist and political statement.  It is a membership symbol whereby saying or showing it identifies the source with a particular ideology, just like the Republican elephant or Democratic donkey.

Another example is “Black lives matter.”  Absolutely.  I agree black lives matter. So do Hispanic lives, and Asian lives, and White lives, and everyone’s lives.  There are non-black students who will see “black lives matter” and feel that they are second-class citizens.  This creates a hostile environment for them.  While these students may need some education to help them learn that the statement was not meant to be hostile, that tile will not accomplish that goal.  “All lives matter” would promote equality and inclusion rather than targeting only one group.

I have often seen activists create a framework where they dismiss anyone who disagrees with them as haters.  These activists argue it is OK to ignore opponents or exclude them in an effort to create provocative experiences and manipulate them to into silence or agreement.  This is directly against the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion.  In other cases, activists are just completely unaware that their statements are offensive to others—a lack of cultural competency and a limitation in their awareness of the existent diversity of views. 

Cultural competency means that we should recognize and try to avoid potentially offensive gestures.  Our teens need to be taught the same, that well-meaning slogans may be interpreted by others as offensive or hostile, not because the other person is a hater or has less education or does not value diversity, but because they come from a different culture and background.

There are better ways to promote diversity and inclusion that do not create hostile environments or exclude portions of our diverse student body.  I am very impressed with recent efforts at UM.  Take a look at https://expectrespect.umich.edu/ or their hospital’s https://hr.umich.edu/benefits-wellness/health-well-being/mhealthy/faculty-staff-well-being/mental-emotional-health/be-kind-be-well. These are messages that would accomplish the goals of improving equality and inclusion for all Saline High students and would not be hostile or promote certain activists’ or groups’ agendas.

Lastly, our district has a strategic framework to guide actions.  The tiles having activist statements that directly conflict with the goal of creating a positive school environment. It contradicts specific action steps by making a negative environment, reducing well being, and weakening family-school relations, as some parents will also feel ostracized or attacked by the statements.  It does not matter if they should feel that way: other forms of education could address that.  These tiles will not help with that aspect.  It matters that they do feel that way, and that the tiles therefore will create a negative, hostile environment.

Additionally, no matter who wrote the tiles, they will appear as part of the physical school, giving the impression that they are the statements of the administration. That will have a strong effect, given the status imbalance between students and administration, and explicitly turns our school (and implicitly the administration and faculty) into a tool promoting the agenda of some activist groups.

These tiles need to be evaluated by multiple people to ensure that they are not hostile to anyone in our diverse student body.  I am sure that the symbol of a cross or statements like “What would Jesus do” or “God defines marriage as between a man and a women” would not be allowed, but they not much different than the pride flag, “Love is love” or “science is real” in terms of potential to be viewed as hostile, group identifying, or cultural competence.  It is too much to ask just one or two people to evaluate all tiles. They cannot possibly understand all people and it is unfair to make them personally responsible for such an important and large task. However, the district has parent groups, such as the DEI committee, that could be used, and I am sure that many parents would be happy to join a new committee to evaluate cultural competency for these tiles.  Alternately, we can use the sayings from the UM programs, which have already been vetted to some degree.

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Dear Mr. Raft,
We spoke with a few friends who are also parents of High School students and are very concerned about the “Look Up!” project.  The intentions, we are sure, are good, but the impact is very problematic.  At a recent City Council meeting, members of Uproar educated the council on the difference between intent and impact.  The premise is that “impact”–how one perceives your words or actions–is all that matters, “intent”–what you meant others to get out of your words or actions–means nothing.  That logic applies in the case of the painted ceiling tiles of the LookUp Challenge. Some of the slogans are political and ideological in nature.  Regardless of the intent of the students, they carry meaning in the context of how they have been and are used in society.  Just like a noose carries racist connotations. Some of the slogans and symbols that have been put on display in the High School have loaded meanings and contexts.  Let us give some examples:

“Black Lives Matter” What this doesn’t mean:  That black lives matter.  Of course, they do.  What it does mean:  That if you don’t think rioting is a good way to protect black lives, you’re a racist who thinks they don’t matter.  This is a slogan of antifa, a social justice group that came very close to being categorized as a terrorist organization due to their proclivity for inciting violence. That group has demeaned police officers around the US and has called for violence against them.  Such behavior has been criticized by a diverse sample of political groups.  “Today, Antifa activists focus on harassing right-wing extremists both online and in real life.  Antifa is not a unified group; it is a loose collection of local/regional groups and individuals. Their presence at a protest is intended to intimidate and dissuade racists, but the use of violent measures by some Antifa against their adversaries can create a vicious, self-defeating cycle of attacks, counter-attacks and blame. This is why most established civil rights organizations criticize Antifa tactics as dangerous and counterproductive.” (taken from here)   At several Antifa rallies you can hear “Pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon!”  This is a clear call to violence against police officers.  How will the children of a law enforcement officer interpret the sign?
“Science is Real” This is a statement of truth.  Science and the scientific method are real things.  No great insights there. What this doesn’t mean:  That well-conducted science can discover some things about the real world.  Of course it can.  What it does mean:  That ideologically influenced science should be accepted without question, so if you ask for better evidence, you’re opposing science itself.  It is used to mean the Big Bang and Evolution are scientific facts; since some climate scientists think global warming is anthropogenic, it must be settled science.  Man is the cause of global warming.  Case closed.  This slogan is really meant to be a slap in the face to anyone who does not believe these things.  That is really an affront to scientific understanding and practice.  Science is never settled.  We are always learning and improving our understanding of the world.  In the middle ages, followers of Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe could easily have wagged around signs stating “Science is Real!” (eg. it is settled science that the Earth is at the center of the solar system).  But it took skeptics like Kepler and Copernicus (point of pride…he was a Pole like myself) to stand against the “settled science” of the day and be open to other possibilities.  That would be a truly scientific understanding.  “Science” is real is just a way to say “If you don’t believe my progressive view of the world, you are neanderthal, uncouth, unintelligent, and unscientific!”  How will students who believe the world was created by God, or Global warming is caused by cyclical changes in our Sun be made to feel by that slogan?
“Love is Love”What does that mean?  It is just a redundancy.  What this doesn’t mean:  That love should be respected.  Of course it should.  What it does mean:  Everything motivated by sex is good, and if you have any reservations about that, you’re against love.  In the context of culture, it carries many connotations like “marriage is not limited to men and women…gender is not static…and if you think they are, you are against love.  You are a hater.”  The Urban Dictionary states the following meaning: “It’s not about the sex or gender of the person but how they treat you! So, as long as you’re getting the love and affection that you need to be happy in love then it doesn’t and/or shouldn’t matter what gender is loving you.  Often a term used by bisexuals or those who have no issues with swinging with the same-sex as long as the loving is good!”
We, as a community, have been talking in the district for some time about “doors” and “windows” that allow ALL students to see themselves and experience psychological safety.  But all the doors and mirrors seem to be weighted toward one ideological side–indeed a political ideology.  We are afraid that many of our students don’t have doors and windows where they can see themselves and this is a detriment to their psychological safety.   Board policy 3210. H. states that staff should “exercise due care to protect the mental and physical safety of students, colleagues, and subordinates.”  Is the high school–and district–taking care to afford this protection for ALL students?
It is our belief that many of the slogans are political in nature (see here, here, here, and here) and thus inappropriate for placement in schools, especially in a permanent way, with no opportunity for opposing viewpoints.  Once an open forum is established, will we give equal access to other students or groups that want to paint tiles?  Saline Board policy has a lot to say about political advocacy by students and staff in district facilities.   The Lookup Challenge–though well-intentioned–may be on very shaky ground as regards these policies.  The slogans have also been placed in a semi-permanent way, in a place that students who find them offensive cannot “opt-out”.  One can’t opt out of using a general hallway.
4213. D.  “employees shall not campaign on school property during duty hours on behalf of any political issue or candidate for local, State, or National office…”  

9700  “It is the policy of the Board of Education that students, staff members, and District facilities not be used for advertising or promoting the interests of any nonschool agency or organization, public or private, without the approval of the Board or its delegated representative.  Has the board reviewed the project goals and materials and given approval?  The policy goes on to state, “The Board shall not permit the use of any type of educational material, program, or equipment in its curricular, co-curricular, or extra-curricular activities or at any time during the school day if such materials, programs, or equipment contain partisan political messages or are designed to persuade students or staff members to acquire a particular product or service offered by a named individual, company, organization, association, or agency.  What is the purpose of the the tiles if not to persuade?    
3210. M. [Staff should] refrain from using position or public property, or permitting another person to use an employee’s position or public property for partisan political or religious purposes.
We have observed over the years the inspirational signs and quotes painted in the schools of the district about respect, hard work, and kindness.  We celebrate with the school district the diversity of the high school student body by the hanging of banners representing all student groups.  We feel that those have all been well-thought, prudently placed, apolitical, and foster the psychological safety of ALL students.  We do not feel that the Lookup Challenge ceiling tiles meet the same bar and we respectfully request that the ceiling tiles be removed or placed in the classroom of the class that is sponsoring them, along with other, equally ideologically charged slogans such as the following:

“Science is never settled.” “Choose Life!”  “Don’t tread on me.” “Make America Great!” “What would Jesus Do?” “In the beginning He created them, male and female, he created them.” “One life taken, many hearts broken.” “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”