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Judge Stops School District from Covering Up Controversial George Washington High Mural

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The seemingly endless saga over the George Washington High School mural took another turn Tuesday when a San Francisco Superior Court judge overturned the school district’s decision to cover up the controversial artwork.

Ruling in favor of an alumni group that alleged the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education shirked the California Environmental Quality Act review process, Judge Anne-Christine Massullo said the district “failed in their primary duty to follow the requirements of the law.”

A status hearing is expected to be held in September after the two sides agree on a date.

If you’re wondering why covering a mural requires a CEQA environmental impact report, look no further than the San Francisco Planning Department, which explicitly outlines projects that cannot be exempted from the process:

“Section 65962.5 of the Government Code. (3) A categorical exemption shall also not be used for a project which may cause a substantial adverse change in the significance of a historical resource.”

The mural in question, titled “Life of Washington,” spans 1,600 square feet and consists of 13 frescoes painted in 1936 by Victor Arnautoff as part of the Depression-era New Deal Public Works of Art Project. Students pass the painting as they walk up and down the stairway and move through the high school’s main lobby. It’s what they’re forced to look at every school day that makes the mural a point of contention. 

Tucked into the artistic Washington biography are scenes depicting slaves the first U.S. president owned and ‘pioneers’ walking over a dead Native American. 

While some prefer to keep the art intact for historical realism and educational value, others are not so keen on students being exposed to the violent images. It’s the same issue the nation has been forced to examine in recent years over statues that celebrate other slave owners and Confederates. It’s been often suggested that history not be necessarily erased, but maybe more appropriately stored and accessed in museum-like settings instead of public, taxpayer-funding spaces that people don’t always have the option to avoid.

In the case of the George Washington High School mural, it was decided the art could be covered with panels in lieu of painting over. The school district board voted in 2019 to move ahead with that plan, but today’s court ruling halts that process.

It’s not crazy to think Black and indigenous students, especially, attending a public school may not want to revisit that history up close five days out of every week. But as of now, the mural’s future is out of the district’s and students’ hands — a CEQA review will determine if historical value trumps all. 


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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.