by Mark Bousquet
An assignment asking junior high school students to create a political cartoon has resulted in the teacher being fired. Robert Duncan, a teacher at Boyet Junior High School in Slidell, Louisiana was fired earlier this month after a parent complained about artwork from the assignment Duncan had hung outside of his classroom. The offending pictures depicted a bullet hole in the side of President Barack Obama’s head, and another which used Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Mitt Romney to imply that it was hunting season on the President.
Though fired at the start of August, the assignment and original complaint occurred in late January 2012. Duncan assigned “a history assignment in which students were asked to symbolize ‘a current political matter.’” Duncan then hung the art outside of his classroom, which one student found offensive. According to the Times-Picayune, “Parent Karen Stampley said Tuesday she was alerted last week to the drawings and pictures by her daughter, a Boyet Junior High School student. When Stampley went inside the school, she said she saw them hanging on a wall, including one altered photo that portrayed a bullet hole on the president’s head.”
After the St. Tammany Parish Public Schools conducted an investigation in the matter and the Secret Service visited the homes of two children, Duncan was “fired August 6 by St. Tammany Parish Public Schools Superintendent Trey Folse after serving six months of administrative leave, in part, for posting ‘violent’ depictions in hallways outside his classroom.”
At a public hearing on August 22, Folse revealed that Duncan was “fired for ‘making a bad, incompetent’ decision by posting the ‘violent’ pictures, as well as for dishonesty.”
Duncan’s attorneys argued that there are three reasons why Duncan should be reinstated to the position he has held for the past 13 years: that the bullet hole image was misread by the offended parent, that political cartoons are part of the school’s curriculum, that the school’s principal never personally noted any violent content in the hanging artwork, that the parent entered the school illegally to take the photos of the artwork that she then distributed to the media, and that he would not have been fired if the issue had not become public.
Duncan’s claims have support from one of the artists at the center of the controversy, the School Board, and the Supervisor of Administration. The student of the “bullet hole” drawing presented a letter she had written at the hearing in which she said that she had “dropped her marker on the photo the night before the assignment was due and didn’t have time to fix it.” Harry Pastuszek, lead attorney for the School Board, argued:
She was cramming to get the assignment done, and sadly, in the process (she) knocked over a marker that caused the mark to be made. Efforts were made to remove the mark, efforts were made by the student to camouflage and cover up the mark, but unfortunately it was not possible to be done on account of the construction paper and the wicking of the glue underneath with the marker.
Duncan’s attorneys asked Michael Cossé, the Supervisor of Administration, if Duncan would have been fired if the story had not been made public, and Cossé “paused, then replied, ‘Probably not.’”
Mark Bousquet is the Assistant Director of Core Writing at the University of Nevada, Reno, and reviews movies and television programs at Atomic Anxiety.