A recent art assignment for ninth-graders at Sonora High School included an image intended to show former President Donald Trump in a Ku Klux Klan hood and Melania Trump in a dress exposing her cleavage, igniting a frenzy of online criticism from parents and offended conservatives, and prompting school administrators to announce they were investigating.
The April 13 assignment was titled “Masterpiece - Altered or Reproduced” and it urged students to select an example of well-known visual art or use one of the examples shared in the assignment, copy or alter the image, complete the assignment in a 60-minute best effort, and turn it in the following day.
The altered image of the Trumps is a parody of the 1930 painting “American Gothic” by Grant Wood. Who created the parody image of the Trumps was not clear. As of Wednesday this week, the same image the teacher shared in the art assignment appeared in a Reddit post from a year ago titled “Trump gothic.”
At least two students made photographs of the Trumps image as it appeared in the art assignment and shared them with their parents. By the following evening, a photograph of the “Trump gothic” image included in the art assignment was on social media.
More than 58% of Tuolumne County voters supported Trump in the Nov. 3 presidential election.
Some people online incorrectly believed the teacher created the image herself. Others didn’t care where it came from, they found it inappropriate to be included in a high school class assignment.
“I put that post up because I have some friends who have children in that art class,” Nikki Foster said this week in a phone interview. A social media post she made April 14 received more than 140 comments and more than 90 shares. “I care about our children.”
Oscar Martinez, who has children at Sonora High School, said, “It is my opinion that a teacher is there to teach our children and help them in life, but he or she should not at any point push their political beliefs on our children. I believe that the religion and political aspects of life need to be taught at home, not influenced by anyone who has their own political agenda.”
The teacher who made the assignment, Susan Gambaro, did not respond to requests for comment.
Stephanie Owsley, who has a son in Gambaro’s class, said she believes the situation got blown out of proportion online.
“I honestly don’t see any harm done,” Owsley said in a phone interview Wednesday. “It’s not like she’s teaching a history lesson in her class. This is art class. It’s not about ‘I hate Donald Trump,’ but that’s the way some parents took it. I feel the school handled it well. They asked her to remove it from the assignment and she did.”
Some parents are being over-sensitive about the art assignment, Owsley said. Politics and political views are everywhere, including public schools.
“If you don't want your children exposed to anything political in school don’t send them to American public schools,” Owsley said. “Starting from day one in kindergarten, they’re saying the Pledge of Allegiance.”
Foster made another social media post Monday about a Trump cartoon on Gambaro’s classroom wall. By Foster’s account, a student recently questioned Gambaro about the cartoon and Gambaro said it’s her classroom and she has the right to have it on her wall.
“It's not her classroom wall,” Nikki Foster’s husband, Edewaa Foster, said in a phone interview. “That wall is paid for by us, the taxpayers, and her salary is paid by us taxpayers. Sonora High School is not a private school, am I right?”
Asked Wednesday if the school’s investigation of the controversy was complete, Ed Pelfrey, the school’s superintendent, responded, “It is a personnel matter. We will not be able to provide further comment.”
School administrators sent a notice to parents, staff and students last Thursday afternoon stating, “We are aware of a controversial image that was part of a class assignment. A screenshot of this image was posted on social media … Sonora Union High School District understands that while some curriculum may be controversial in nature, it expects administrators and teachers to exercise professional judgment when deciding whether or not a particular subject or issue will promote student growth and achievement.”
The district and school do not condone assignments or class discussions “that could lend themselves to students feeling unwelcome due to their political views, race, color, ancestry, nationality, national origin, ethnic group identification, age, religion, marital, pregnancy, or parental status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity or expression, or genetic information; a perception of one or more of such characteristics; or association with a person or group with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics,” the April 15 notice states.
“Each of us, individually and collectively, is responsible for creating and nurturing a learning environment where every child is respected and valued for who they are. Sonora Union High School District stands steadfast in our commitment to foster an inclusive educational environment where every student, teacher, support professional, parent, and community member is treated with dignity and respect.”
Martinez said he and other parents simply want politics and political views left out of their children’s classrooms.
“We're not trying to get anybody jammed up,” Martinez said. “But the teacher needs to understand that political views are home taught, not something where she should be trying to influence her students by sharing political content in her class, period.”
Jim Schultz has three sons who attended Sonora High School in the 2000s and the early 2010s, and he graduated from Sonora High with the Class of 1974. He said this week he was offended by the politically charged example included in the art class assignment.
“Yes I am a Trump supporter, but I don’t care if it was a picture of Obama, being very offensive about him and his wife,” Schultz said. “It shouldn’t be in the classroom. Don’t press it on the kids. I'm not satisfied with the school’s response, because I don’t know what the outcome is. I've seen the teacher has cleared her Facebook page of negative posts about Trump. She’s entitled to her political views. I'm not trying to get anybody fired. I just don't want it to happen again.”
Contact Guy McCarthy at email@example.com or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.