When an 11-year-old in Maryland drew a picture for a class assignment, he depicted his view of the world today in the context of history. He showed a black man hanging from a tree, with two Ku Klux Klansmen nearby. He titled it “Black Lives Matter” and said he intended to show that racism in America is not dead.
But the teacher who saw his drawing did not understand it that way. She thought the assignment for Banned Books Week might suggest the boy was considering harming himself, according to school officials. She contacted a counselor, who called his family and recommended a mental health evaluation at a crisis center.
He missed most of a day of school Friday and had to sign a safety contract promising not to attempt suicide.
“In this picture, I was trying to describe what was going on in the world, and what happened back then,” said Tidiani Epps Jr., a sixth-grader at Montgomery Village Middle School in Montgomery County, Md. “It’s what happened back then, and a piece of what happened back then is still here today in the present, like racism.”
Tidiani said he drew the picture Thursday morning, during homeroom, in response to an assignment he believed was about portraying what he would like to see stopped or banned. He wants an end to the recent police shootings of black men that have dominated the news.
“I just want it to stop,” he said. “I don’t want to see this any more. Young black people get killed for no reason. It’s not fair or right.”
His mother, Sade Green, was “livid” about how the school responded. She said her son was expressing his feelings, and the school’s actions suggest he did something wrong or had mental health problems.
Green plans to take him to the crisis center Monday, when schools are closed, and have him back in class Tuesday. But she said she let her son know that what he did was “not wrong at all.”
At school, she said, “They think just because they’re kids, they’re not paying attention, but they are. Their eyes are open to everything going on around them.
“They see and they know. Just because they don’t talk about it doesn’t mean they don’t feel it and understand it, or that it doesn’t bother them; obviously it does,” she said.
Green said if the picture had only shown a figure hanging from a tree, maybe there would be more cause for concern. But she noted the two unmistakable Klansmen and the large words Black Lives Matter. Two word bubbles near the Klansmen say “Hang” and “Kill.”
Her son also answered a series of questions about his state of mind, saying he did not want to hurt himself, according to school documents the family provided. Asked if he saw hope for his future, he said yes, he wanted to be a football player. He described his mood as happy and said he was supported by his mother, father, sister, uncles and aunts.
Montgomery County school officials said the teacher misinterpreted the picture. They said the assignment was to create a poster, advertisement or book cover to celebrate Banned Books Week.
“The concern was for his safety,” said school system spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala. “She misunderstood his drawing. She thought it depicted that he felt in danger or he felt suicidal.”
She said he was not being punished and that the school “really just wanted to make sure the student was okay.”
Onijala said the school recommended a crisis-center evaluation — but did not require it — and that Tidiani was offered the chance to go back to class; the family disputes both statements.
School system documents about the incident describe general procedures, stating that the school will inform parents of concerns, request that a student be picked up by a parent or guardian, and “request verification that he/she is safe to return.”
Tidiani, who goes by the nickname “J.J.,” explained what the words “Black Lives Matter” mean to him.
“It’s not just black lives that matter,” he said. “Everyone matters, but for right now, in this era, so many black people have been getting killed for no reason. It matters.”
Shaun R. Harper, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies race in education and reviewed the drawing, said the school’s reaction appeared ridiculous and punitive.
“I was impressed that an 11-year-old could offer such a sophisticated cultural critique of the realities of race in America and the persistence of state-sanctioned violence against black people,” he said. “I did not see a suicidal kid, but instead a young black social scientist, a genius.”
Harper said that the school’s lack of staff diversity may have influenced how the drawing was interpreted. According to data for last school year, the professional staff at Montgomery Village Middle School is 79 percent white, while student enrollment is 7 percent white.
“This demographic mismatch explains, at least in part, how a sophisticated cultural critique could be so terribly misunderstood,” Harper said.
Green, the boy’s mother, said she has not shielded her children from the news of police-involved shootings of black men. She said she and her children watch the news together and discuss what they hear. She noted Tidiani also has seen movies that depict racist crimes of the nation’s past.
“My child has to walk to school every day,” she said. “He is a young black male. He will grow up to be a black man. I have to let them know what’s going on in society. Nobody is safe. What kind of parent would I be if I didn’t try to teach them the rights and wrongs of what’s going on?”