World War II art project spurs tension at Antioch High School

For eight years, Cathy Fitzgerald smoothly led 11th-grade American history students through the minefield of art and politics.

But on May 14, the Antioch High School teacher's efforts to ensure that her students never forget the travesties of World War II exploded.

A 16-year-old student ripped down a poster of a swastika titled "Flag of a Fallen Government" from an exhibit in history hall called "The Art of War."

Kiernan Cox, an African American student who tore down the poster showing the Third Reich's flag, was reprimanded. The poster was returned to the wall along with 20 other student works showing images such as Adolf Hitler with horns growing from his head and the Statue of Liberty holding a Nazi flag titled "America's Nightmare."

"The true spirit of the project is the integration of art, history and the pervasive images of war," said history teacher Pat Pyle.

"I wish the student would have come to one of us and said he was uncomfortable [with the poster]. I'm sure we would have taken it down.

"But instead, he took it upon himself [to take it down], yelled at Cathy and refused to engage in any further dialogue. All without consequence."

Fitzgerald declined to comment herself. (Pyle said Fitzgerald has been criticized by both students and parents.) The school administration supports her.

"The entire point of this project is to portray how terrible World War II was. It's designed to make people aware of a terrible time in history without any intent to portray any type of racism whatsoever," said Antioch principal Jeff Reich.

"We all feel badly that this student felt hurt," he added. "We're sensitive to that. Nonetheless, history is dry. For kids at Antioch this created tremendous discussion. They've learned more because of this incident. And I believe what we're doing is right."

In addition to spurring discussion between students and teachers, the incident also brought a phone call from the Holocaust Center of Northern California, which offered to bring survivors to speak next year at the eastern Contra Costa County high school. And Antioch teachers are looking forward to adding the survivors' visits to the World War II history curriculum, Pyle and Reich said.

Currently, 11th-grade history students study World War II — the battles, the concentration camps, the bombing of Pearl Harbor — from a U.S. perspective. The global view is taught in ninth-grade world history classes.

Fitzgerald supplements the curriculum with a visit to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. Following a docent tour and discussions about representational versus non-representational art, and political themes in art, the students embark on their own projects.

Divided into groups, they choose an aspect of World War II to depict artistically. They also write reports about their art projects.

The students are not censored, "but they are warned about sensitivity," Pyle said.

As aware as the student artists tried to be, they couldn't predict less-than-sensitive responses by other students. In an Associated Press story, Cox alleged that some students passed by the Third Reich flag poster and saluted it.

However, neither Reich nor Pyle observed this.

"You can bet if I did I'd have a nice little heart to heart with that student," Reich said.

"When kids do that sort out thing, I would say 99.9 percent of the time it's out of ignorance and it needs to be addressed as such.

"If I saw a student doing that I'd pull them aside and explain the facts of life: that their gesture under a different set of circumstances would have been supporting what caused the death of millions of people."

After a two-week display period, all the posters were taken down on May 23 as scheduled. Fitzgerald has not discussed if she will continue the art project again.