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A little paint causes big brouhaha at Seoul American High

SEOUL — When Seoul American High School’s new principal approved a plan to replace a large mural in a busy upstairs hallway, she sparked a backlash that has included a Facebook campaign to save it.

“I had no idea there would be this much resistance,” said Kathleen Reiss, a former teacher who has served as principal for three Department of Defense Education Activity schools in Europe, and last year, as the NATO senior education adviser to the Afghanistan Ministry of Defense Chief of Training and Education for the Afghan National Army.

“I had murals painted in schools before and had murals painted over, and it was never an issue. If the students want it, why not?”

The controversy highlights the unique nature of military schools and their largely transient student bodies. Most SAHS pupils are military brats who move every few years, so many newcomers may have no real attachment to the school. But a smaller group of teens has spent much of their life in South Korea; they see the Seoul American schools complex as home. And the school eventually comes to feel like home to some teens who move frequently, students say.

The mural, painted about 13 years ago when many of the current students were just toddlers, is a colorful collage of symbols representing Korean culture and the high school, including its falcon mascot.

A former SAHS teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, said it has been a part of the school’s history and a unifier for students and alumni, who form a sort of “family” and stay unusually connected after they graduate.

Tara Popp, class of 2003, remembered when the mural was vandalized as part of a senior prank a few years after it was painted. Other students decided to restore it, and today, it remains a rallying point for alumni.

“It’s like a symbol for us. Many DOD students move around a lot, so they’re not like people in the states, where they have a hometown they can go back to,” she said. “But the fact that we have the mural in that school, that one thing we can return back to, that’s why we don’t want to get rid of it.”

According to Reiss, an art teacher approached her months ago and said his students wanted to replace it with a version that reflected the school’s new vision statement: “students prepared for success.” She approved, happy to see students on board with the new statement.

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However, when repainting began Nov. 30, students immediately complained. Reiss halted the project to gather student opinion, with about a fourth of the mural already whitewashed.

Superintendent Irby Miller got a flurry of angry e-mails, and Reiss received a petition with about 100 signatures. A Facebook page, created on Dec. 2 with the title “Save the Mural, Save the World! (Or at least SAHS tradition),” quickly drew attention. As of Friday, the page had 2,184 members, including a significant number of alumni.

Most of the comments posted on the page expressed anger about the mural’s demise, though a few people wrote they had no emotional attachment to it.

Reaction among current students was mixed.

“It’s more of an alumni-driven thing. Some of the kids I know jumped on the bandwagon,” senior David Chong said. “It’s nice. I guess I would rather keep it on the one hand, but I wouldn’t mind putting our mark on the school, too.”

Robert Scarpinito, also a senior, believed the mural should stay.

“It’s a symbol of being here as a military brat, and of Korean culture,” he said. “It’s a reminder that you’re surrounded by a culture you won’t get able to get in Texas or Wisconsin.”

Reiss, who has been called a “tyrant” and a “dictator” for her initial decision to get rid of the mural, said it doesn’t matter to her whether it stays or is replaced as long as students play a role in the decision. She will soon meet with the student council and will let them decide.

The matter could soon be resolved in a way that satisfies everyone. The student council has proposed restoring the old mural, and will work with the student body to come up with new design ideas for another mural, an idea that Reiss has accepted, according to DODDS spokesman Charles Hoff. The new mural will be placed in another location and voted on by students.

Reiss said it was important to consider alumni sentiment, but that wasn’t the only consideration.

“We have to honor that,” she said. “But we’ve also got to honor and respect our current students.”

rowlanda@pstripes.osd.mil

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