Yarmouth school whitewashes anti-bullying mural

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YARMOUTH — For almost eight years, a colorful mural was displayed high along the wall of the Yarmouth Elementary School gym. Designed by students and painted by local artists, it conveyed the message that children should stand up to bullies.

But earlier this year some students reportedly complained the mural was scary and negative. Despite resistance from the artists, and without any public discussion, the mural was removed over the summer.

School Principal Betsy Lane said a small number of children had asked that the mural be removed from the gymnasium wall.

“It was felt that the message was a negative way of saying don’t bully,” Lane said Monday. “Some kids said they didn’t like the way it made them feel.”

The approximately 8-by-24 mural, painted in 2006 by local artists Page O’Rourke and Mary Rehak, depicted two children bullying another while four other children and several animals stood up for the bullied child. It featured the phrases “be a buddy, not a bully,” “stand up, don’t stand back,” and “one person speaking up makes more noise than a thousand who remain silent.”

Lane said the children and one teacher, whom she wouldn’t identify, complained thought the characters had angry faces and were scary.

Sue Hammerland, another Yarmouth artist, said this is “a weak argument.”

“So kids shouldn’t look at art with unhappy faces?” Hammerland said. “We don’t need to protect them from that.”

She said Yarmouth children live in a very safe area, and while they are fortunate to grow up in a nice area, it doesn’t mean they should be sheltered from reality.

“To shield our children from ‘scary’ or unhappy faces in a mural takes protectionism to a bit of an extreme,” Hammerland said in an email. “Should children avoid going into a church because there might be imagery of the crucifixion? Should we not let them watch any television news? Or look at the newspaper?” 

Lane said the issue surrounding the mural is “a matter of perspective,” and that the mural was “not meant to be forever.”

The mural was inspired by a visit from author Peggy Moss in 2004. She presented her book “Say Something,” which encourages kids to stand up for children who are being bullied. Third-graders who met with Moss decided two years later as fifth-graders to have a mural painted with the guidance of their teacher, Barb Sorenson.

O’Rourke said the mural’s existence had been threatened prior to this year. She said she originally heard from a YES gym teacher in December 2012 that it would be removed, and spoke to then-Superintendent of Schools Judy Paolucci, who put a stop to the plan.

O’Rourke said she met with Lane in January, and Lane told her the mural “had value.”

“(Lane) said she’d turn a negative into a positive,” O’Rourke said.

She said that was the last time she spoke to Lane about the mural and only found out last month that it had been covered with white paint. She was at YES to help set up a fundraiser for the Yarmouth Hockey Boosters when she noticed the gym wall was blank.

“Honestly, I was shocked and devastated,” O’Rourke said.

Lane, on the other hand, this week said she spoke with Sorenson, O’Rourke, and Rehak before having the mural removed.

Rehak could not be reached, but O’Rourke said she never heard from Lane.

Hammerland said the mural was removed just as Yarmouth was bringing in a new superintendent, Andrew Dolloff, who was unaware of the situation and background. She said Paolucci, as well as interim Superintendents Ron Barker and Bill Michaud, opposed removing the mural.

“A new superintendent was brought in and this time no one was alerted …,” Hammerland said. “The mural was quietly painted over.”

Dolloff said he was unaware of the issue until the day after a reporter asked Lane about it.

“I heard about this for the first time today,” he said Tuesday. “No one’s been to see me about it, that’s for sure.”

Dolloff said he believes murals shouldn’t be painted directly onto walls, but should be painted onto canvases so they can be moved. He said over time areas need to be repainted and that if they remain the same, the “wall becomes tired.”

“From what I heard, the gymnasium needed to be painted,” Dolloff said, noting that when it was repainted a few years ago, the mural was untouched. He said he was told it couldn’t go any longer without being repainted.

Lane said the decision was not made quickly and wasn’t done maliciously.

“It was not a spur-of-the-moment decision,” the principal said. “It was done with no malintent.”

O’Rourke said she wishes the community could have provided input before a decision was made.

“Before it was painted over, I feel the community should have been able to weigh in,” she said. “I really felt like it was a community project painted in a community space.”

Hammerland, who has two children who went through the Yarmouth school system, said removing the mural isn’t helping students or teaching them anything.

“If children are repelled by (the content, removing the mural) is not teaching kids anything,” she said.

Hammerland said standing up to bullies is a topic kids should learn about and that just because the mural dealt with an unpleasant subject, doesn’t mean it should have been removed.

“It’s art and art can be scary and have a message that’s not happy, and they need to understand that,” she said. “The message behind the mural is something kids should understand.”

Lane said YES takes bullying seriously and that children are taught not to bully. She said while the mural “had a good message,” the school doesn’t intend to have a new, more positive mural painted. She said the school will continue to inform kids about bullying in other ways.

“Yarmouth Elementary School is a place where we take bullying very seriously whether the mural is there or not,” Lane said.

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

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This anti-bullying mural at Yarmouth Elementary School was removed after eight years, over objections from the artists, reportedly because of complaints it sent a negative message.

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I'm a reporter for The Forecaster covering Freeport, Yarmouth, Chebeague Island, and Cape Elizabeth. I'm from a small town in NH no one's ever heard of. When not reporting, I can be found eating pasta and reading books, often at the same time.