African-American Students Cry Foul Over Noose

Art assignment leads to walk-out; 'sensitivity training' likely for veteran instructor.
African-American Students Cry Foul Over Noose
FOR ART'S SAKE? — Los Angeles Trade Technical College art teacher Bill Robles said he thought that assigning his students this photograph would allow them to apply principles learned in his class. The photo of dancer and choreographer Geoffrey Holder holding a noose around his neck offended his African-American students, who walked out of class. A student filed a complaint and wants Robles to be fired. Robles could be disciplined by undergoing sensitivity training, but the information cannot be divulged since it deals with a personnel issue, according to college President Roland "Chip" Chapdelaine.

A local college teacher who asked art students to copy an image of a black man with a noose around his neck as part of a class exercise could face some disciplinary action by administrators, although a recommendation that he take "sensitivity training" is the likely outcome of the incident.

Los Angeles Trade Technical College teacher Bill Robles could be disciplined in various ways if administrators determine that Robles gave the homework assignment with malicious intent.

Trade-Tech President Roland "Chip" Chapdelaine said that his initial review of the matter indicates that Robles did not make the assignment with malicious intent, however. Robles wouldn't have to take training but only be recommended to do so, according to Chapdelaine.

"He gave an assignment that was probably insensitive," Chapdelaine said recently, adding that he would reserve final judgment until he conducted a full review.

A final determination will not be disclosed publicly, however, since the situation is a personnel matter, according to Chapdelaine.

Forms of sensitivity training can vary, and generally involve exposure and discussion with persons from different ethnic groups, Chapdelaine said.

The incident began on September 16, when Camelle Williams and other African-American students walked out of Robles' drawing class after the veteran instructor passed out an image of a black man standing in his bare feet, pointing to the floor with one hand and holding a noose around his neck with the other.

Williams still filed a complaint after talking to Robles, and later brought the matter to the Board of Trustees of the Los Angeles Community College District, which counts Trade-Tech as a member campus.

"He was defending himself the whole time," she said of Robles.

"He didn't say he was sorry," said Williams. "He didn't even acknowledge the noose."

Robles said he doesn't remember exactly what he said in his initial conversation with Williams, but added that he did not intentionally give the assignment as a racist gesture or to offend anyone. He said that he had never associated the photo with any racist themes.

"In retrospect, I see it was an error in judgment," Robles said.

"I can see their side of it," he added, referring to the objections by African-American students, "but I'm totally devoid of any of those (racist) feelings ... I did it in total innocence."

Robles, a longtime courtroom sketch artist, has worked at Trade Tech for roughly 20 years.

Chapdelaine said he did not know of any other complaints filed against Robles in the past.

Image from Bill Robles' website
Home page of Bill Robles' Web site, which highlights his work as a courtroom sketch artist.

Robles said he picked the assignment — originally something he drew based on photos he saw many years ago in a magazine — because he felt it offered a good exercise for students to apply drawing principles they had learned in his class. Some students had been complaining about certain assignments, he said, so he offered the image as a "stimulus."

Robles said he had never given the assignment to students before.

Chapdelaine and Williams, in separate interviews, said that he had assigned the image in the past.

Raymond Baptist, a visual communications student who saw the illustration before it was passed out, refused to draw it.

"It was kind of shocking to me," Baptist said. "He's not even being considerate of people's feelings."

Virtually all the black students — about five in a room of roughly 30 — walked into a neighboring lab and told another teacher about the incident, according to some students.

"Everybody just came in mad, basically," Baptist said.

Robles added that the picture — which he said was an intriguing pose and photo of Trinidadian artist and performer Geoffrey Holder — was considered a piece of art several years ago and wasn't considered offensive.

Baptist said that doesn't change his opinion about the photo "because people saw it for what it was ... especially black students."

"We see a black person with a rope around their neck," he added.

School officials held meetings, including one with Robles. An administration official also visited the class to evaluate Robles because of the incident, according to Chapdelaine.

Robles apologized to students several days later. The school also apologized in a letter "on behalf of the Arts Trades and Fashion Department" and the administration "for the lack of sensitivity in the Visual Communication assignment..."

Williams said she didn't accept Robles' apology, and wants him fired, noting that she doesn't have a personal problem with him. She said the situation should not be tolerated because racism shouldn't be tolerated anywhere.

"He is only a symptom to a much bigger problem," she said, also alleging that racism exists at the school.

Robles reiterated he is not racist, adding he would not have passed out the assignment if he was.

"I don't know why somebody would want to tarnish a career spending all (these) 40 years with something like this," he said, reiterating it was false that he meant to offend anyone.

"You're worried about your 40 years," Williams said in response. "I'm worried about my 400 years (of slavery)."

Robles later said that "in retrospect, I've had a sensitivity awakening." He said he was in "lala land" because he just didn't think in racist terms when he saw the drawing — but is now more aware.

Robles said that he remained uncertain about the timing of the process for reviewing the incident.

"It's just not a quick deal. It has to go through the machinery," he said.

Nana Gyamfi, a lawyer and co-founder of Los Angeles-based Human Rights Advocacy, said she would help Williams get the word out about the situation.

People have the right to speak out, Gyamfi said.

"The damage has occurred," she added, "whether the intent is there or not."

Samuel Richard is Managing Editor at the L.A. Watts Times.

Photos from L.A. Watts Times.

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