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A high school student's mural angers parents over what they say are hidden messages

This mural is on the wall of the Child and Adolescent Health Center at Grant Middle School in Michigan.
Child and Adolescent Health Center, Grant Middle School
This mural is on the wall of the Child and Adolescent Health Center at Grant Middle School in Michigan.

School district officials and a high school student in Michigan have drawn the ire of parents who allege that a painted mural contains LGBTQ propaganda, a depiction of Satan and a message of witchcraft.

The painting covers a wall inside a teen health center at Grant Middle School in Grant, Mich., and was created by a local high school sophomore who won a competition.

The mural features caped characters, bunny- and bear-headed nurses and smiling students dressed in brightly colored outfits. One student is wearing a blue T-shirt with pink and white stripes — colors found on the transgender flag. Another student is outfitted in shorts overalls with a rainbow-striped T-shirt and tights underneath. Parents have said that the rainbow stripes represent the colors of the pride flag. Two other students are dressed in tops with colors of the bisexual flag — pink on the top, royal blue on the bottom and an overlapping purple stripe in the middle.

Among the drawings of the students, the artist added multiple smaller line drawings, including a mask, which some parents have complained is Satan, and a hamsa hand, which is considered a symbol for the hand of God in many cultures, but in this case, some adults have claimed it is a symbol of witchcraft. The mask and hand are both design elements that were not included in the artist's original contest submission.

Outraged parents air their concerns

Debate over the mural's meaning became heated — often verging on uncivil — during a school board meeting, covered by WZZM, a local Grand Rapids news station, last week.

Throughout much of the meeting, incensed parents claimed the artist intentionally subverted the mural's "Stay Healthy" theme to promote anti-Christian messages.

"It's discrimination against Christian beliefs," one man said during public comments, adding that it also qualifies as "hate material."

A woman called for more school counselors, saying, "When adults pretend things that are like real life, it's a mental illness. We need counselors. We need medication that's going to help bipolar disorder. Fix their brains."

The teen artist attempted to allay parents' fears about her work and her intentions.

"I put my artwork up there to make people feel welcomed," she said in a quivering voice.

Responding to adults' accusations that she schemed to include sinister images, she said, "That's not what I'm a part of. That's not what I'm trying to put out there."

The student explained that the so-called Satan mask is a character from a video game and that the painted hand is a Latino symbol of protection. She eventually left the meeting in tears.

Afterward, one woman stood up to say, "I feel that she did a really good job finding excuses to defend the things she put on. None of us are that stupid."

Queer students say they find comfort in the artwork

One student who identifies as a queer person, and who said that they've been bullied by other children, said the mural made them feel included.

"Maybe you should be more concerned with your children's behaviors instead of what art is on the wall," they told parents in the room.

Another parent who described herself as a "conservative, right-wing, gun-loving American" admonished parents for going after the student artist so viciously.

"I've never seen more bigoted people in my life," she said.

Some images will be permanently removed

On Oct. 13, district officials announced that after meeting with "all parties involved," the artist will eliminate all elements, including the mask and hamsa hand, that deviate from the original design submission that was approved by the administration.

That means the character in the pink-and-white striped shirt as well as the one in the rainbow stripes will remain.

"At Grant Public Schools, we are committed to promoting civility, respect, understanding and inclusion. We do not condone, and we will not tolerate discrimination, harassment or bullying whether in word, deed or on social media," a district statement read.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.