Suspended for Art

This profile of a small-town Kansas high school senior who found herself in the center of an educational free-speech case won first prize for feature writing from the Kansas Association of Collegiate Press.

Boman’s life goes on after suspension

Originally published in the Sunflower

The phone rings in Sarah Boman’s kitchen. The morning radio program “The Breakfast Club” wants her to come in for an interview next weekend.

Sarah’s mother looks up from the ceramic bell she’s painting.

“Ask him to play a song while you’ve got him on the phone,” she says. “We can never get through when we call in.”

There’s a reporter in her kitchen and a radio personality on the phone with her daughter, but Julie Boman is unfazed. By now, her family is used to the attention. She has played host to a number of strangers in the past month.

On Jan. 3, Sarah Boman had 15 minutes to spare in her art tutorial class at Bluestem High School. She took out a large sheet of white paper and wrote “please” in large, red letters. Other words followed in a stream-of-consciousness spiral. After the bell rang, Sarah posted the piece of artwork on the classroom door.

The following day, Dan Shipman, a government teacher at Bluestem, asked Sarah if she knew who had posted the unsigned piece.

When she said it was hers, “he said, ‘I wish you hadn’t told me that, kid,’” remembers Sarah.

The teacher offered to walk her to the office of Principal Dale Harper, but Sarah went alone.

Once there, the principal informed Sarah she would be suspended from school for five days because her artwork violated the school’s rule against “intimidation by threat or deed,” said Harper.

According to Sarah, the spiral of works on the artwork in question represents the thoughts of a fictional madman. The first sentence is “Please tell me who killed my dog.” Later it reads: “I’ll kill you all! You all killed my dog because you hated him.”

“My principal actually told me he didn’t think I was a threat at the time,” says Sarah.

When left alone in the office, Sarah panicked. Tearing the paper into pieces, she flushed it down three toilets, even though she knew Harper had already made copies.

Sarah called her parents, telling them she might be leaving the school in handcuffs. Harper called a Leon police officer who came to file a police report. Since only 707 people live in Leon, the officer knew Sarah – in fact, he lives next door.

The school held an early-morning hearing the following Monday to decide if Sarah could resume classes after the suspension. A panel consisting of Debbie Webster, the principal of the elementary school, and two other Butler County teachers ruled Sarah should be suspended for the rest of the school year.

The family was prepared to accept the five-day suspension, says Julie.

“We were willing to take the five days,” she says, shaking her Marlboro Light over the ashtray. “We never thought it would go this far. [Harper] acted like it was no big deal, then he came back [on Monday] and tried his damnedest to crucify her.”

Julie’s mouth tightens; she is a mother indignant over the injustice she believes has been visited upon her child.

“You just want to smack them upside of the head,” she says.

The lovebirds and zebra finch in the living room sing. If you close your eyes, it sounds like an aviary.

Sarah looks at her mom.

“I wish you would chill out,” she says. “I know you’re mad, but it’s over now and I’m back.”

And she is – back at school after a three-week absence while she waited through two days of school-board appeals and the beginnings of a trial in federal court.

After the expulsion hearing, the Boman family called the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union in Kansas City, Mo. After reviewing the case, the ACLU asked attorney Paul Rebein to represent Sarah’s family.

“I thought her rights had been violated and she needed help,” said Rebein, who is a lawyer with the Kansas City, Mo., firm of Shook, Hardy and Bacon. Rebein took the case pro bono.

The family filed an appeal with the Board of Education, which appointed El Dorado lawyer David Ricke to conduct another hearing and make a recommendation to the Board.

After the first hearing, Sarah asked the help of Jill Eggers, an assistant professor of painting at Wichita State. Eggers looked at six year’s worth of artwork in Sarah’s portfolio, as well as the piece that caused so much trouble.

Eggers wrote a letter to the Board and testified for Ricke on Sarah’s behalf.

“[At the hearing] I talked about what kind of art her piece was and what we can see in the piece to know that it is artwork and not a literal threat,” said Eggers. “It would be different if she had written in large letters in blood on a wall.”

Eggers said Sarah’s piece is concrete poetry – an art form in which verse takes a shape to represent what the poem is about.

The character in the poem is a madman and “that kind of thinking, circular and obsessive, came out in the piece,” said Eggers.

A professor of art at Bethany College also testified at the hearing, as did many character witnesses.

The hearing was closed, but more than two dozen students received parental permission to miss school so they could stand outside the school district office, where the hearing was held, to show their support for their classmate. They chanted “let Sarah back” and, at the request of a TV news crew, sang “Kumbaya.”

“A lot of them wanted to do a walkout,” says Sarah. “They ended up doing a yellow ribbon campaign.”

Everyone from students to television news reporters to the woman who delivered their mail was wearing a ribbon, says Julie. Students also circulated petitions asking the Board to allow Sarah to return to class.

After the hearing concluded, Ricke recommended the suspension be dropped. The Board voted to drop the suspension if Sarah would first undergo a psychological exam to determine that she wasn’t a threat to Bluestem students.

Sarah and her family filed a lawsuit in federal court, arguing the school board was violating her freedom to privacy and free speech by requiring the exam.

Two days later, the judge sent Sarah back to school.

Sarah says most of her classmates are happy to have her back.

“There were probably five parents and five students who really had a problem with me,” she says.

Principal Harper still said it is “obvious” that the artwork is a threat, but he said the school will “do what the court tells us to do.” He declined to say whether he thought the judge made the right decision.

Sarah and her family had started making plans in case she was not re-admitted, but she seems happy to be able to finish the school year and walk with her class. Although she had to give up her part in a school play because she missed rehearsals, she’s looking forward to prom. Her mom sewed her dress, inspired by the gown Drew Barrymore wears in the movie “Ever After.” Her date will wear chain mail.

Sitting at a table at a Chinese restaurant in Augusta, Sarah listens to her friends chatter about classmates who just had babies. The conversation bounces from young motherhood to talk shows to Sarah’s prom date (“just a friend”).

It’s easy to think of Sarah as a regular high school student and not a minor celebrity. Her blond hair is pulled into a ponytail, not covered by the bandana she usually wears when out of school. She wears a blue ribbed sweater and jeans, and around her neck beaded and silver necklaces and a small cross hang around here neck.

But she’s not a regular teenager. Even without the attention she’s received from her struggle to go back to school, Julie says their neighbors know Sarah as someone with an usually good heart.

“Even people who don’t understand the art know her,” says Julie.

She talks about how Sarah as bought people groceries with money she made working at the Augusta Pizza Hut and the times she weeded gardens for elderly women in their town. Julie is proud of her daughter.

Sarah is following in her mother’s footsteps – Julie is an artist who put a paintbrush in her oldest daughter’s hand when Sarah was five and complained of boredom. Sarah and her brother and sister helped Julie paint murals for some McDonald’s restaurants in Wichita and El Dorado.

Both mother and child smile when they talk about how Sarah’s suspension briefly changed their lives. In addition to the lawyers, journalists and neighbors who have paraded in and out of the Bomans’ small yellow house in Leon, the family has heard from people all over the country.

Sarah has received letters of support and clippings of stories about her in newspapers outside Butler County. They mention one letter from a mentally handicapped 23-year-old, who wrote to ask Sarah to a dance. He also wanted her to be his girlfriend.

News accounts even resulted in Sarah getting her own showing at the Acme Gallery in Wichita.

“It’s been a crazy time,” Sarah says. “Pretty neat, really, though.”

The senior is making plans for next year. She began the process of applying for an art scholarship at WSU, and she was favorably impressed with the program.

“I met Jill [Eggers] and I said ‘oh, I want her to be my teacher,” says Sarah.

But she is planning to attend Bethany College in Lindsborg instead – at least for two years. Sarah got to know the school through her brother, Joshua Boman, and his girlfriend, Jessica Crane, who are both students there.

Crane is an art student who is presenting her senior show this semester. Sarah became familiar with the Bethany art department through her.

“She hangs around here a lot and she’s been sucked in,” jokes Crane. “She’s one of us now.”

In addition to art, Sarah wants to study religion, philosophy, psychology and architecture. She also plans to do missionary work after college.

“I think that maybe I will start out for a year and end up doing it 10 years,” she says. “Who knows.”

Eventually Sarah wants to start an art gallery and museum where all kinds of artists can show their work, including high school students.

“I want to travel and learn,” she says. “I still want to be a singer. I think I can pull all of these things together.”


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