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Forest Hills superintendent stands by decision to paint over student-created diversity mural

Zack Carreon
Parents and students attend the Forest Hills school board meeting on Sept. 20, 2023.

The debate over whether discussions about race, inclusion, and LGBTQ+ issues belong in Forest Hills Schools was reignited after Superintendent Larry Hook made the decision to paint over a student-created mural at the start of the school year.

The mural depicted the hands of people of different races signaling love and solidarity surrounded by symbols of equality and acceptance of various sexual orientations.

Mural inside Nagal Middle School before it was covered and painted over
Advocate FHSD
The mural inside Nagel Middle School before it was covered and painted over.

Students at Nagel Middle School created the mural years ago, but when students returned to the building this year, some were surprised to see it covered by a banner promoting Forest Hills's new "Culture Blueprint." That banner was torn down. Shortly after, the mural was completely painted over, sparking outrage from some students and parents.

On the Forest Hills Schools' website, theCulture Blueprint is described as a reminder to students to do their best and be mindful of others. But some say the superintendent's actions send a different message.

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Dozens showed up to Wednesday's school board meeting holding signs of the mural. Parents and students spoke during public comment in opposition to the superintendent's decision.

Forest Hills parent Jeff Nye addressed Hook directly, calling his response to the initial backlash childish.

"A 7th or 8th grade kid — 12- or 13-years-old — damaged that banner and that's unacceptable and should be punished," Nye said. "But before that happened, you had an opportunity to reflect and take action, value the feedback you received, to lead by example, to lead with humility, and say 'I made a mistake, I shouldn't have put it there,' but you didn't. You doubled down. You didn't act like leader. You acted like a kid. You took your ball and you went home and I'm incredibly disappointed."

High school student Norah Zellen also had strong words for Hook, saying that permanently covering the mural will have a more negative impact on students than district leaders thought.

"The mural exhibited a safe and inclusive learning environment, yet it was painted over. This action shows thoughtlessness, a lack of authenticity, and calls into question if the school board and superintendent want some students erased," Zellen told Hook.

Hook was noticeably silent on the issue during the meeting. Each time the superintendent spoke about school matters, audience members held up signs of the mural.

During the meeting, board member Leslie Rasmussen called out the superintendent for his unwillingness to address the elephant in the room.

"Larry, you made a lot of wonderful comments about the awesome work our students are doing. I don't want that to be overshadowed tonight or any time, but I want to take a moment to make sure you see all these students in the audience. They deserve acknowledgment," Rasmussen said.

Hook responded, "I see them," but made no further comments on the matter until questioned by reporters after the meeting.

Hook's response

The superintendent defended the mural's removal, saying despite the overwhelming opposition, most people in the Forest Hills community wanted to see it gone.

"I've talked to a lot of people who were very upset that it was there," he said. "So, it's kind of created this battle that shouldn't even be in schools. We need to focus on our education. We need to focus on what's important. That doesn't mean we marginalize anybody."

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A small collection of adults also spoke during public comment defending Hook's decision. One attendee, who took offense to parents and students supporting the mural, was removed by law enforcement after getting into a physical interaction with another audience member.

Zack Carreon is Education reporter for WVXU, covering local school districts and higher education in the Tri-State area.