Andrew Vandall, a history teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, is taking responsibility for painting over murals outside history classrooms, including two that were part of the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Heritage Trail, but says he had no malicious intent.
“I messed up, and I’m getting it,” Mr. Vandall told The Times Tuesday. “Hold me at fault for having poor tact, but please don’t call me racist or culturally insensitive.”
The incident has caused a firestorm in recent days, inflaming an already delicate situation with history teacher and former history department head Elaine Weintraub’s resignation/retirement. Ms. Weintraub, a champion of the school’s Brazilian community, has said she has felt bullied by the administration.
Mr. Vandall went into the high school after hours on Wednesday night and painted the walls white. He painted the walls the night before Ms. Weintraub returned to school for her final days after being out on medical leave.
She told The Times on Monday that the painting was a “hate act” that covered up works dating back to her first year in 1998.
“It was a wonderful piece of work that’s been featured all over the place,” Ms. Weintraub told The Times Monday. “What horrified me is taking all the diversity out of this hallway. These murals celebrated diversity. That’s a big part of our school, and it should be.”
Ms. Weintraub also discovered a photograph of former President Barack Obama and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had been removed from her door.
But it’s the decision to paint over the murals, particularly the day before she returned, that Ms. Weintraub finds most disturbing. One depicted the life of Nancy Michael, a Vineyard slave, and another honored William Martin, a black whaling captain from Edgartown, according to the trail’s website.
“I’m not the victim,” Ms. Weintraub said. “The students are the victim. This was a huge slap in the face.”
Margaret Joba-Woodruff, who painted Emma Chambers Maitland, a female lightweight boxing champion, said she was disappointed to learn her work had been removed. “The significance of what was painted over was more important and a greater loss,” she said.
Mr. Vandall told The Times he knows he hurt former students and Ms. Weintraub.
“Over the past few days, many incorrect and vicious rumors have circulated about the 500 hallway,” he said. The speculation amounts to “radical assumptions and small-town gossip,” Mr. Vandall said.
He said he never knew the significance of the artwork, even though Ms. Weintraub had led the history department since he arrived five years ago. “Am I at fault because I didn’t ask, or is she at fault because she didn’t tell me? It’s really not about that,” he said.
Mr. Vandall pointed out dozens of ways he has worked toward embracing and celebrating diversity. He is working on his doctorate in a program to address English language learners, and has chaperoned many of the trips promoted by Ms. Weintraub’s One World Club.
“If she thought I was at all racist or anti-anything, why would she ask me to go on a trip four times? A trip about diversity?” he said.
Mr. Vandall said he took responsibility for the incident immediately after learning that the school’s principal, Sara Dingledy, was investigating who did the painting. She told him to apologize, which he did.
“I really do think Elaine was personally offended, which is not what I wanted, because she sees at the end of her career, she sees a dimming of the light in some ways,” Mr. Vandall said. “She’s sad, and we’re sad for her. She sees this and she’s reflective and she’s hurt, and that’s not what we wanted. That’s not the goal.”
To the contrary, Mr. Vandall said, his intent was to carry on and expand what Ms. Weintraub had started by including not only cultural diversity, but giving students areas to express themselves about LGBTQ issues and opioid addiction, among other topics.
“We are not ending any kind of the programs that Elaine had set up, which is embracing the African-American community, embracing the Brazilian community, embracing any kind of ethnicity and celebrating that; we’re continuing that,” he said.
A second person was with Mr. Vandall, but has not been named.
“Neither person had the school’s permission to paint over the murals,” Ms. Dingledy, the high school principal, told The Times. In an email about the incident after it became clear it was not an act of outside vandalism, Ms. Dingledy wrote to staff that it was more likely a “case of very poor timing and very poor judgement.”
Ms. Dingledy also vowed in that email to take care of the situation professionally and privately, but the incident has fired up social media.
Mr. Vandall said he was shocked by how the story exploded. “They just went off on to this whole rant, and it went way far away from the truth,” he said.
On Monday, Ms. Dingledy held a forum where teachers were able to talk about the incident in small groups. “It’s an isolated incident,” she told The Times. “We gave them an opportunity to talk, debrief, and move forward.”
“It’s hit the staff hard,” Ms. Dingledy said. “I think people are disappointed that it is representing the school as a whole in a way that people feel is inaccurate.”
School officials offered similar roundtable discussions for students on Wednesday, according to a notice sent home to parents.
Other murals at the school have also been painted over in the past, but there was no plan in place to remove the murals outside Ms. Weintraub’s room, Ms. Dingledy said. “Student murals are not permanent installations,” she said.
The murals were painted on the walls of a public school building, and were likely to be painted over at some point, Ms. Weintraub acknowledged. It’s the timing that she finds most troubling, she said. She had hoped to preserve them in photographs, and had planned to take down her personal effects, like the photograph of the two presidents.
Ms. Dingledy declined to say if any disciplinary action would be taken against Mr. Vandall, or if criminal charges would be sought against the second individual.
Mr. Vandall said he expects to be reprimanded, but declined to say how. “I think that’s warranted. If I’m perceived as having poor judgment, that’s something teachers can’t have,” he said.
Ms. Weintraub is known at the school for her trips abroad to Ireland. She has also taken students to New York City and other destinations as part of her One World Club.
She serves on a bias and diversity committee for the state, and her class was considered a safe space for diverse students.
“It was a most blatant piece of bullying,” said Ms. Weintraub, who plans to work with the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School as a consultant. “I think people are shocked.”
Bob Moore, director of the Charter School, said he has had informal talks with Ms. Weintraub about being a guest speaker to share her experiences with the Island’s African-American community. She has not been hired by the school as a teacher, he said.
Patricia Oliveira, who graduated earlier this month, is one of those people who was shocked. Ms. Oliveira participated in the Portuguese Club, and was in Ms. Weintraub’s Brazilian history class.
“I wanted to help the school be more diverse,” she said. “This is a step backwards.”
Ms. Weintraub’s departure was already going to be difficult for students like Ms. Oliveira, who came to the United States from another country. “I came here when I was 8. I know what it’s like to be left out,” Ms. Oliveira said. “Seeing that wall, seeing a map of my country, it meant something to me.”
Willa Vigneault, another 2017 graduate, said she’s disappointed that Ms. Weintraub’s departure appears to be overshadowing the “amazing work she’s done” and casting the school in an unfortunate light.
“The silver lining to this situation is these problems we want to work on are out in the open,” Ms. Vigneault said. “The public is investing their time in these issues.” The administration, teachers, students, and parents need to listen to each other to move forward. “We all have same goal, that is to make a better, unified community,” she said.
Ms. Dingledy said she understands the perception Ms. Weintraub has of the incident, but she encouraged her to bring the issue to the school’s equity officer. “It’s appropriate to do that rather than take it to social media and the press,” she said. “That’s what he is responsible for.”
Lisa Reagan, a parent of former high school students and a former school committee member, said the resignation of Ms. Weintraub has created tension and put the board in a tough spot, because an individual teacher is not within its purview.
She also took issue with how the incident is playing out on social media. “The ugliness on Facebook is pitting people against each other in the worst possible way,” she said.
Ms. Weintraub declined to speculate on the motivation of Mr. Vandall, a history teacher at the school.
Asked if she had any responsibility, given her very public resignation, Ms. Weintraub said she does not. “This has been a difficult year. I’ve been unable to practice my trade as I should. We tend to look at outrages and ask, ‘What did the victim do to deserve it?’” she said. “I’ll say again, I don’t think I’m the victim. This is a hate act. This is a strange thing to happen in public school.”
Madeleine Moore contributed to this report.