Painted-over murals stir controversy at high school

Teacher Andrew Vandall takes responsibility for what Elaine Weintraub calls a ‘hate act.’

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MVRHS history teacher Andrew Vandall admitted to recently painting over murals at the high school, and says his intentions were not malicious. —George Brennan

Update:

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.

19 COMMENTS

  1. On a silly note, his name is Mr. Vandall. On a more serious note, I think anyone that’s ever had a job knows you can’t go in and paint the walls at night without permission. Additionally, anyone who has worked in a school (or lived in America) knows how it looks when you sneak in at night and remove diversity murals. With that in mind I am not sure his intent matters much in this situation.

  2. He comes into the building at night, without permission. Why didn’t he wait until August, with permission? He clearly had an agenda, his own agenda. The reality is that his actions go beyond poor judgment.

  3. Is it just me or do Mr. Vandall’s comments seem a bit odd. Unless I somehow missed it he does not say why he went in and painted the hallway. If it wasn’t racially motivated or motivated by spite why did he go in at night and do such a wildly inappropriate thing? Additionally, his comment that maybe he should of been told the murals were important is just bizarre. I haven’t been in that buliding in decades and I knew. I don’t see how an adult at any job could not know that he was not allowed to paint the walls without permission. And if he thought it was no big deal why did he sneak in at night with an accomplice? He obviously must of known it would of been frowned upon. And finally how could a grown man working in public education be surprised that painting over diversity murals could be seen as a hateful act?

  4. Mr. Vandall CHOSE to take it upon himself to paint over murals.

    He CHOSE to not confer with anyone at the school regarding his decision.

    He CHOSE to perform his actions at an unusual hour.

    I would suspect he CHOSE not to tell/ask anyone, and he CHOSE to do this when the school was quiet because he didn’t want anyone to know. Why didn’t he want anyone to know?

    Mr. Vandall, teachers must lead by example. A surreptitious act of vandalism is not the example ANYONE wants to be taught to their children. Your example of diminishing the value of what is important to others (for your own benefit) is a TERRIBLE lesson for our children — teaching arrogant self-appropriation of righteousness will only lead to students to demand that their vandalism at the school be as acceptable as yours.

    Principal Dingeldy now has NO CHOICE in order to provide a proper example for our entire community to begin to right the wrongs of Mr. Vandall’s poor (and selfish) actions.

    Even if she allows him to stay at the school, Mr. Vandall will have little choice to move on with his career somewhere else because the onslaught of public and school pressure on him (for the choices HE made) will be relentless and serve as the community’s message about how we demand POSITIVE examples of behavior in our teachers.

  5. Artistically, the work was not good, so painting over something mediocre and student-y should not get the same reaction as painting over something of quality. Quality artwork is not what we’re talking about here. The importance and preciousness history and diversity in our community should NOT be confused with lousy art work by students who really can’t paint well enough to force future students to have to look at it forever, as if the work itself was something admirable. The work itself was not admirable in the least, despite the importance of what initially inspired it. The kids who did the painting were not equipped to paint something that translated well what they were trying to express– understandable because these are kids, not experienced or particularly talented artists. It was well past time to give other students a chance to do better than what was there.

    At some point, parents get rid of all the space-robbing “artwork” their precious offspring produce when there’s a time to move on from babyish things, keeping a few pieces in photos or in memory. How is this different? The mural was not well done. Time for islanders to get some taste when it comes to art. Feelings do not translate well into paintings until a person knows how to handle the materials. The murals were not artistically important AT ALL because they were poorly executed and did not in any way represent the feelings that were supposed to be expressed. It was okay for what it was, but it was, artistically, a fail. Of course there is a place and a time for students to produce and show what they’ve got, but holding onto something mediocre for too long is just as bad as not recognizing the importance of striving to produce something better. I say give Mr. Vandall a break. Maybe he has good taste and envisioned something of quality hanging on the walls– or, at least, maybe he wanted to give other students a chance to give it a try.

    • Wow, you are so far off base here, my head spins. The issue is not the quality of the art, but the fact that it was done under the cover of darkness, without permission and, regardless of what Mr Vandall says, with some kind of agenda. By your logic, if my neighbor puts an addition on his house, and I don’t like the design, I can burn it down and when caught, just say” We’ll, I thought it was ugly” and then just be given a break. Again,wow

      • “Under the cover of darkness”, lol. Yeah, like someone defaced the Mona Lisa but used his key to get in. You need to get off island more often. If anyone actually believes it is a “hate crime” to cover up some lousy murals that have had their day, in order to make a fresh surface for new student work… well, WOW goes right back at ya. Mr. Vandall is a good teacher, but only on Martha’s Vineyard does a simple but poorly thought out plan to freshen up the hallways go so far into such hysterics as yours.

        • I never said it was a hate crime, but I do think the man has some kind of agenda. I havent been in the high school in well over 20 years, so I never actually saw the artwork in question so I can’t comment on the quality of it. I have seen the Mona Lisa though ( have you?) and if someone snuck in and painted over it, without permission, and yes, under the cover of darkness, I would be just as upset. You can try and justify his actions be pointing out he has his own key, but it was still done without permission and at a time when the building was most likely empty. That is my issue here

    • By your logic, an Oak Bluffs town employee has the right to go into Ocean Park in the middle of the night and remove any of the flowers/trees there that he/she feels are not up to his/her personal standards. Perhaps he/she will also redesign the gazebo into something more “fresh.”

  6. That is not an apology. You don’t qualify an apology. You don’t blame other people in an apology. Shameful behavior by an adult we trust to set an example to our youth.

    I want to thank the teachers and students willing to bring attention to the problems occurring at the high school. These aren’t internal problems to be hidden and ignored. The principal needs to understand that the high school isn’t the community she represents. The community is Martha’s Vineyard–the students, teachers, parents, residents, businesses. We all have a stake in what is going on there.

  7. It is not an apology. You hit the nail on the head. What it sounds like is the smug musings of an extremely immature man who has been told my the administration not to worry.
    I never wondered if the principal played a role in the act until I read Mr. Vandal’s comments. It seems suspect that Mr. Vandall gave her the perfect opportunity to disprove Dr. Weintraub’s claims and this is how she gas responded. Instead of including the community and reprimanding him in an appropriate manner she chose to attempt to cover it up and continue to avoid being transparent with the community when it has become apparent that they are upset.

  8. Mr. Vandall taught two of my children and I found him to be very understanding and kind. He states that he is not racist or culturally insensitive, and my experience with him bears this out. I understand the frustration of those who are horrified that the mural was painted over; but it concerns me that so many are quick to judge his motives. I don’t understand how some people can claim to know for sure the evil that lurks in Mr. Vandall’s heart, and to blast him in print here and on social media.( With permission I am copying someone else’s words posted on social media with the following); I always assumed that the mural was about Acceptance and Diversity. Miriam-Webster dictionary defines diversity as “the inclusion of different types of people (such as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization.” Can we practice diversity by accepting Mr. Vandall; as the type of person who made an unwise decision? Let’s all take a deep breath and let peace reign.

    • People have very legitimate reasons for being upset by this incident and Mr. Vandall’s handling of the situation. For example:
      1) Black culture is historically minimized, appropriated, perverted, and underrepresented. By painting over this mural there is a demonstrated lack of awareness of this issue and of the cultural significance this mural held for people of color on the island. It is important that this be called out as another example of black history being undervalued- intentional or not- because until people start to recognize cultural bias nothing will change.
      2) He may have admitted to holding the brush, but he did not take responsibility for his actions. He instead suggested that the blame lay with a woman who has nothing to do with the actions and choices of a grown man. He then continued to belittle this woman’s opinions and experience to being “sad” about leaving the school and her career. He deflected and invalidated. This is not the mature, apologetic, and responsible way of handing an “unwise decision,” and it is certainly NOT an example for our students to follow
      3) He made unauthorized alterations to public school property. As a public school teacher I can tell you this is a NO NO. I’m not even allowed to paint a bare wall, let alone paint over artwork without permission.

      I obviously can’t cay what was going through his heart, mind, or subconscious at the time of the incident or this interview. However I can say that not only was his decision to paint over the mural without permission unwise and insensitive (and most likely in violation of school policy), but his reaction was also not reflective of the maturity, grace, understanding, and empathy that should be expected of role models.

  9. I don’t think this about Mr. Vandall’s qualities as a teacher nor is it about Dr. Weintraub. And I shouldn’the have to say that it’s not about the quality of CHILDREN’S artwork. It is about a teacher vandalizing a school. This would be an issue no matter what he painted over. But the fact that he painted over diversity murals does add to this story. Mr. Vandall has not given us a reason.
    I refuse to believe a grown man would have to be told ahead of time that it is not ok to go in and paint the walls at night. Or that he should of been told by Dr. Weintraub that they were important. He made it five years with out defacing the school prior to this.He knew what he was doing. The question is why. If he is covering for someone he should admit. If he is not he should be suspended if not fired. There is not a school in the country where this would fly. Well, now there is.

  10. The MVRSD has a huge problem attracting and retaining teachers, this sort of politically correct community micromanagement of teachers must make it impossible for them the do their jobs, which is to prepare their students for life after this fish bowl called MVRHS. It is no wonder then these students leave the island into the REAL WORLD after years of being enabled and teachers being negatively judged for trying to teach them, they are unable to cope and return to the island where many of them become addicted to heroin. Let teachers do their jobs!!!! This feel good BS is killing our youth.

  11. Maybe you’re right “old man” and this teacher could get a job at the refuse district. Do you think he could handle the hardwork? Do you have statistics or source data on how being taught to welcoming and accepting of those different from you causes heroin addiction? Or any on how feeling safeand accepted within your school leads to addiction? Because the data does exist that suggests the opposite.

  12. Am I missing something? Is it not simple…vandalism of public property is illegal. Why is this not a law enforcement issue as it would be if anyone else had carried out the defacement or unauthorized modification of the wall (insert your perspective as to which)He sets a poor and inexcusable example as a teacher. He essentially admits his intolerant and controversial act and wants to be seen as tragic figure persecuted and misunderstood. This is who should teach our children? Clearly recruitment is tough when someone appears to have little concern for the repercussions of his actions and is comfortable with media displays of little remorse. SAD.