Gracie Holtzclaw, a high school senior in South Carolina, was one of the young artists selected to display her work at the Greenville County Schools Art Exhibition this month. She told local outlet WYFF that she was really “excited” to be part of the event. But just a few days later, 18-year-old Holtzclaw was informed that her submission, which is entitled “Rape Culture,” wouldn’t be permitted to appear in the show.
“This piece, for both title and content, was determined to be inappropriate for the District Show because the artwork is on display during a community event and can be viewed by small children,” a school district spokesperson explained in a statement.
In an interview with WYFF, Holtzclaw said she’s disappointed that the school district appears to be missing the point of her artwork, which was inspired by her personal experience with sexual assault and victim-blaming.
“I started at an early age at a Christian school, locally, and we were always taught that it was our responsibility as women to cover up and be modest, and if a man was to ever get aroused or turned on or be interested in us, it was our fault,” Holtzclaw said. “Eventually, I had gotten sexually assaulted. It was true when it happened. Everyone blamed me for it and told me it was my fault, and that just led the way into this art piece.”
“I know I’m not the only girl in high school that’s been sexually assaulted and felt like it was my fault, so I wanted to get the word out there and tell people, ‘It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault,’” the high school senior continued, explaining that her artwork is supposed to communicate that it’s not women’s or men’s responsibility to cover up.
Indeed, this is hardly an issue that’s outside of high schoolers’ realm of experience. Some of the most infamous rape cases in recent years have occurred among high school students. Sexual violence often starts very young. Last week, a story broke about a string of sexual assaults perpetrated against middle school girls that their school administrators allegedly helped cover up. In some tragic cases, the victim-blaming and harassment that results from these incidences drives teen rape victims to commit suicide.
Nonetheless, this isn’t the first instance of a high school attempting to censor material related to rape. Earlier this year, school district officials in Wisconsin seized control of a student newspaper after it ran a story about rape culture — prompting the high schoolers to start a Change.org petition calling for more editorial independence.
Young Americans have proven that when they’re allowed to delve into issues related to sexual assault, they can produce incredibly valuable work. Last year, a team of high school journalists in California published an investigative series about rape culture that was widely praised by the national media. And rigorous student journalism on college campuses has prompted federal investigations into schools that aren’t adequately handling rape cases, ultimately helping shape national policies to move the issue forward.