MILL CREEK — Although the school day at Tygarts Valley High School began with police on campus Tuesday, the school’s principal said students were later able to calmly discuss a controversial mural and agree to work together on a compromise.
“We went to Tygarts Valley High School this morning for some stuff that was put on Facebook about a (threatened) shooting,” Randolph County Sheriff Rob Elbon told The Inter-Mountain Tuesday. “Myself and three other deputies went to the school and after checking it out, it ended up just being a bunch of social media stuff. There was no legitimate threat and everything worked out pretty smoothly.”
TVHS Principal Steve Wamsley confirmed to The Inter-Mountain that police were at the school Tuesday morning “because there was a rumor that there would be a shooting at the school today, and once that hit social media it got blown way out of proportion.”
The small mural, located on a wall inside the school, features a lava lamp and the phrases “Everyone is Equal” and “Treat Everyone with Respect.” The background of the mural was originally painted with rainbow colors, but the background has since been painted black.
On Thursday some students protested outside the school, carrying signs featuring slogans including “Stop the Indoctrination in our School” and “If You Fly the Gay Flag, We Fly Ours!” A petition was circulated by some of the students, asking the Randolph County Board of Education to remove the mural.
The issue has been debated hotly on social media, with thousands of posts offering opinions on the situation. Delegate Cody Thompson, D-43rd District, who is a Randolph County teacher at another school, posted his disappointment with the situation on social media.
Wamsley told The Inter-Mountain that later in the school day Tuesday he organized a discussion that included “kids who were involved in painting the mural and also kids who were involved in the quiet walkout, kids on both sides of the issue.
“There was no school Friday or Monday, so I thought it would be a good idea for us all to sit down today and talk and listen to each other’s views. And they were all excited about that.”
Wamsley said the discussion group also included “a handful of kids who are seniors, just good, level-headed kids who I’ve got a lot of respect for. And we also had a handful of staff. So we all went into the library and everybody got a chance to talk. And everybody got a chance to listen to each other.
“The No. 1 thing that everyone agreed on was that no one hated each other, no one was mad at anyone else personally. And that was good for everybody to hear,” he said. “And the second thing that everyone agreed on was that the mural is beautiful, but there are some things that make some of the kids a little uncomfortable.
“So again, both sides agreed that they would go through different parts of it and try to make it so everyone can live with it. It was a really amazing thing to watch because our kids were so responsible and so mature and they were so caring. It was really inspiring. I’m very proud of them.”
The principal said the students “decided that they want to keep the mural. There was an issue with a flag that was painted (as part of the mural), and that really wasn’t even up for 24 hours. Someone who didn’t have the authority to allow the kids to paint the flag did so. So the kids ended up removing it, because we don’t want any flags in the building that promotes anyone’s personal interests.
“We welcome the American flag, and we welcome the West Virginia flag, and we welcome any military flags, and there’s some of those up around, too. But to go any further, we decided that that’s probably not a good idea. But at the same time we want kids to feel welcome and to feel safe, and feel like they have friends they can go to.
“So they unanimously wanted to keep the mural, but they also unanimously wanted to work together on it and take out anything that makes anyone uncomfortable,” Wamsley said.
“Everyone involved today talked about how nice the mural looks. The message, ‘Everyone is Equal,’ we think is a great message. We just want to take out some parts that might make it look like we’re shoving some kind of an agenda at anyone.”
Randolph County Superintendent of Schools Debra Schmidlen told The Inter-Mountain Monday that Wamsley had let the county administrators know he had a plan to talk with the students on Tuesday, and that she thought it was a good plan and had confidence in Wamsley.
Although the original mural has already been changed and may be altered further, a replica of it was being painted by TVHS students and community volunteers Tuesday afternoon on an outside wall of a downtown Elkins business.
The students were invited by Counter Culture Concepts owner Ben Simmons to duplicate the original artwork at his business in what he dubbed the “graffiti alley,” better known as Mary’s Alley off Third Street.
TVHS senior Jackson Simmons, one of the artists who painted the original mural at the school, said a teacher had approached the students and asked them about painting a mural to be representative of the LGBTQ students at the school.
“There was a debate today to take it down or keep it up and a lot of people saying it was supposed to be related to drugs,” the artist said. “They were saying the mushrooms were supposed to be psychedelic and the lava lamp was something trippy.”
TVHS senior Eithen Arbogast also helped with the painting on Tuesday. Arbogast said he took part in the discussion at the high school Tuesday, where he said many students mistakenly thought the mural promoted drug use.
“Many students (believed) the mushrooms to be hallucinogenic, to be related to drugs,” he said. “That the lava lamp was influencing drugs on the students. They were stating it was offensive, promoting violence as well as drug use in the school, which is not what the painting was representing at all.”
Arbogast said bullying at the school has became worse since the mural was painted. When asked if he had experienced the bullying, he responded, “Absolutely.”
“It is ridiculous how many students have just become violent regarding this issue,” he said. “It feels like it just doesn’t stop.”
He said when he arrived at school on Tuesday, law enforcement was present and that attendance seemed to be down.
“The school was almost barren,” he said. “I remember in first block where we (normally) have about 20 students, (today) we had four.”
Jackson Simmons, who is not related to Ben Simmons, said it was important to the students to be able to duplicate the original mural.
“It means a lot ’cause a lot of us have been getting bullied and our pictures taken. It has been spreading around really bad,” Jackson Simmons said. “It is really nice of Ben to have us do this mural on his wall and have us have the original one so the LGBTG community can have their voice.”
Ben Simmons said he was happy to provide the space for the mural to be duplicated.
“There are so many bad things in the world right now and I thought that the kids needed a little bit of positivity, something to show that there are people out there to support them and want to facilitate a more diverse community and a broader way of thinking,” he said. “I think that showing them that there are adults out here that stand up for them is important.
“Hate, violence, racism and sexism and all of that, it is just something as a society that we don’t need. We don’t need that. It is 2021. Do what makes you happy and if this brings a little bit of happiness to these kids, I am all about that.”
Staff Writer Edgar Kelley contributed to this article.