The district said the mural didn’t represent “all members of our school community.” But who was really left out?
Earlier this month, the Cedarburg School District—without notice—painted over a mural created by the Webster Middle School Student Acceptance Team that celebrated love, racial and ethnic diversity, and LGBTQ pride.
The official reasoning for covering up the mural? “Not all members of our school community were represented,” and students painted it “without final approval,” according to a statement from the Cedarburg School Board.
The mural that was somehow not inclusive enough for the district included the nonbinary, asexual, bisexual, lesbian, transgender, and rainbow pride flags; flags from 16 different countries; and 16 people of different races and ethnicities holding hands around the planet Earth with the words “Love is Universal.”
As someone who was born and raised in the Cedarburg School District and is now one of the school board’s constituents, I would love to ask how this mural wasn’t inclusive enough. Who was being left out? When I reached out to superintendent Todd Bugnacki to get clarification, the district’s communication coordinator wouldn’t elaborate. He referred me to the school board’s statement issued Aug. 11, which doubled down on the assertion that students didn’t receive proper approval.
But let’s go back to the previous excuse, that the mural didn’t represent “all members of our school community.”
This statement seemed like the equivalent of people complaining there’s no straight pride month in response to June’s Pride Month, or that there is a Black History Month but no white history month. My very privileged, suburban Milwaukee community needs to recognize that we’ve historically been taught or taught others that whiteness and heterosexuality is the default, whether in our art or our history classes. By doing so, we’ve de-emphasized or outright discounted LGBTQ and nonwhite experiences, along with any other minority identity.
This is not the first time Cedarburg—an Ozaukee County city of about 12,000 people, almost 95% of them white—has made statewide or national news for its conservative-leaning demographic. And this is yet another example of how our “Cedarbubble,” as we endearingly refer to it, is very resistant to the idea of change. One of the reasons I now go to university in New York City is because I wanted to encounter people with more life experiences than the very limited scope contained within my small town. This situation, unfortunately, just reinforces the reason I left.
Neil Willenson, co-founder of Camp Hometown Heroes and Cedarburg community member, also found it hard to believe this supposed miscommunication was the reason the mural was painted over.
“This mural took dozens of hours to complete and was painted in plain view of school officials,” Willenson wrote in a Facebook post. “They were never informed that the school board needed to approve their mural, and for that matter, perhaps the principal did not know this either.”
Despite the school board’s claim in its statement, Katherine Myszewski, a former Webster teacher and adviser of the Student Acceptance Team (SAT), told the Ozaukee County News Graphic she got approval of the design but that she and the SAT were asked to paint over some of the Pride flags. She said they resisted the change.
If one of the district’s concerns about the mural truly was the lack of inclusivity, it is counterintuitive that administration would ask for the removal of flags representing different identities.
Annika Prickett and Josh Bothe, both Cedarburg High School (CHS) 2021 graduates, painted a mural depicting numerous 20th-century civil rights icons at the high school during the 2018-19 school year.
Prickett said she and Bothe had a straightforward approval process for the mural that included proposing it to the principal and presenting a slideshow of proposed elements, an estimated timeline, and needed materials. Given her own experience with getting a mural approved, Prickett said she doesn’t understand the difficulty the SAT supposedly encountered with its mural.
“They’re making the approval process sound like it’s something that’s very convoluted and difficult, but there was no written approval process within the student handbook, nor do I think that there was one created in the span from 2019 when my mural was finished, to 2021 when this one was erected,” she told me. “It just seems like they’re covering for something larger.”
Prior to the school board’s decision to permanently remove the mural, the district temporarily covered it up in July because it claimed some people questioned whether LGBTQ flags on the mural were “developmentally appropriate.” After parents and community members expressed outrage over the decision, the district apologized and uncovered the mural.
But LGBTQ flags are indisuputably developmentally appropriate for middle school students. Children begin to develop a sense of their own gender as early as 2 years old; a 2018 San Diego State University study found some children began to identify as LGBTQ as young as 9, and a 2013 Pew Research Center survey found homo- and bisexual people begin to determine their sexual identity at a median age of 12.
So when the middle school temporarily covered up the mural, it wasn’t protecting its own students, but rather choosing to enforce a worldview that refuses to acknowledge the existence of anyone other than heterosexual, cisgender people.
“Taking down this mural has cast an ugly haunted shadow of homophobia and transphobia on not only the district but also the school board members,” CHS senior Kayla Suhr wrote on Facebook. “The removal displays a clear message that one is allowed to be a part of the LGBTQ+ community, but it is not a matter to be addressed in schools, nor can it be discussed. Everyone has the right to feel safe and comfortable in school. Everyone deserves to feel welcome.”
Prickett said she views the situation as an opportunity for the community to come together to form a solution rather than staying divided.
“How many more times do you guys have to have blunders like this to realize that the way you’re doing this is not working?” she said.
Once the district announced it had painted over the mural, Paula DeStefanis, program director of the Northshore Academy of the Arts and the Arts Mill in nearby Grafton, offered her space for the SAT to recreate the mural at an upcoming show at her gallery called “Inclusion” that will run from Aug. 27-Oct. 10. DeStefanis said the cover-up of the Webster mural reminded her of past examples in history where pieces of art depicting social issues are destroyed or covered.
“Ofen, artists are depicting what is going on in society at the time, and for whatever reason, one segment of the public isn’t kosher with that particular subject matter, and then it gets covered or destroyed or whatever it may be,” DeStefanis said. “So I thought it was a perfect opportunity for us to become a vessel so the kids could showcase their artwork that seems very significant at a time like now.”
The Cedarburg and Ozaukee County community is filled with people like DeStefanis, but it often seems progressive voices get drowned out by decisions school board members make like this one, or parents complaining because they are trying to keep their children in the “Cedarbubble” as long as they can before it pops.
When people like me come back from outside the bubble, we have to make sure we use our diverse experiences to talk to our constituents or voice our concerns publicly to make change within. From my perspective, the sooner you get out of the bubble, the better, because there’s so much more to learn in life than what goes on in our little town.