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FAIRFAX COUNTY school officials have apologized for artwork from a high school student that sparked a controversy. They should be sorry — but not for anything that this young artist did. Instead, they should apologize for their own cowardly retreat, which sends a chilling message about free expression.

At issue is artwork from a South County High School student that was displayed as part of an exhibition from Feb. 15 to March 14 at Northern Virginia Community College’s Annandale campus. The work — depicting Jewish people with anti-Semitic stereotypes — prompted complaints from some members of the Jewish community who found it offensive and hurtful. Actually, that was the point the provocative image was trying to make about stereotypes, something that would have been more apparent had the work been displayed with proper context. It was part of a portfolio that focused on the irony of racial stereotypes of eight different types of people, and it had won an award from a panel of judges that included professional artists.

The student wrote a statement of intent that accompanied her portfolio but, unfortunately, it was not included in the community college display. “I believe exaggeration of stereotypes spreads ignorance, not prevents it. I want people to understand the effects [of] stereotypes and why it’s important to see the tragedy in it,” the student wrote. “. . . this is not just about stereotypes, it is also about human kind’s treatment towards one another.”

A simple explanation from the school system about the omitted context should have put to rest the understandable concerns and would have reassured the public of its commitment to free expression. Instead, there was a groveling apology, feeble reference to students’ First Amendment rights and the promise to reinforce “with our art teachers the need to foster a responsive, caring, and inclusive culture.” Getting in on the act was the Suburban Virginia Republican Coalition, which condemned the artwork and lashed out at the art teacher who had the temerity to stand up for her student by pointing out the work was commentary on the ugly racial policies of the current president.

Seems to us that a student speaking out against racist stereotypes is the very epitome of caring and inclusiveness, and that art is supposed to provoke thought and discussion. Both are cause for applause, not apology.