Students, teacher denounce police flag hanging in office, but district cites free speech

Aisha Osman made sure to quicken her pace each time she walked by the office of the school resource officer at Aloha High School.

Osman said from the office window, she and other students could catch a glimpse of a black and white American flag with one stripe in blue. The "thin blue line" flag, or "Blue Lives Matter" flag as it's also referred to, began cropping up in law enforcement communities across the U.S. in 2014.

SUBMITTED PHOTO - A Thin Blue Line or Blue Lives Matter flag is spotted in the school resource officers office at Aloha High School in 2019. The flag has since been removed. Police say it serves as a symbol of solidarity, representing the inherent danger in their job. For them, it's supposed to pay homage to fallen law enforcement officers, as well as those who continue to work in the profession each day.

For others, including many students and teachers of color in the Beaverton School District, the flag is an antithesis to the Black Lives Matter movement. It surfaced in the United States roughly a year after BLM was established.

"When I first saw that flag, I was kind of shocked because they turned a group like Black Lives Matter that's fighting for the justice of people killed by police into Blue Lives Matter that's just about the officers," Osman recalled.

The flag hung in the office of Washington County Sheriff's Deputy Dylan Leach, who serves as the armed on-campus officer at Aloha High School and the International School of Beaverton. Leach has worked for WCSO since 2008.

Teachers and students say the flag and its related sentiments carry a deeper, more complicated theme.

Osman was born in the United States to Somali parents who emigrated from Africa after being granted asylum. She says growing up as a Muslim in America, wearing a hijab daily, casual racism was everywhere.

She recalled walking with her mother in public the day after Trump took office.

"A man drove by and yelled out, calling us 'terrorists," she said.

School grounds weren't any better.

"Lots of students don't understand the meaning of the n-word, or the use of it, so they just throw it around," Osman said, noting she and other black students felt a "disconnect from the administrators" and didn't tell them about every instance of harassment they encountered.

For Osman, the flag in her school was just another small reminder of a pecking order that often left her at the bottom.

She may not have felt listened to by her school leaders, but a few years ago, one leader did listen.

In 2016, she wrote a letter talking about her experiences growing up in a post-9/11 America to President Barack Obama. A few months later, she was invited to visit the White House and meet him.

"That is a once-in-a-lifetime experience I could not say no to," Osman recalled. "What I understood was I saw the first family that actually looked like me walking down the streets of Washington, D.C., and it just made me so happy."

According to statistics collected by the Oregon Department of Education, 63% of Aloha High students are non-white.

Katherine Watkins is a teacher with the Beaverton School District. She taught at Aloha High in 2019 and also advised the school's Black Student Union. Watkins was the first to inquire about the flag to school administrators.

"Other people of color here told me it was here, but to actually see it triggers fear in me," Watkins told Aloha Principal Matthew Casteel in an April 2019 email exchange.

Casteel responded, asking for a sit-down meeting, in an effort to "model for our students and staff how we tackle tough issues with a focus on seeking understanding first."

Watkins declined.

"I don't feel comfortable talking with the officer because the message is loud and clear. I can only imagine what our black students are feeling," she told the principal.

In May 2019, Watkins reached out to Beaverton School District Superintendent Don Grotting about the flag, asking for clarification on district policies.

But it wasn't just the flag.

She had stumbled upon old photos from Leach's Facebook profile that included a digitally altered photo from 2012 of Leach and a woman, meant to spoof a rap album, with fake song names like "Monkee Burgers" and "Black Bitch Kona."

"When you have images like that out there, how could you possibly protect us?" Watkins asked rhetorically.

WCSO addressed the image, issuing a statement last week.

"It was brought to our attention, an image posted on social media, more than seven years ago, by one of our deputies assigned as a school resource officer caused concern to a school staff member," the statement reads. "It should be noted, the image in question is not associated with the Sheriff's Office and it was posted on an employee's personal social media account."

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Katherine Watkins, a longtime teacher in Beaverton School District, said she and some of her students raised questions about the display of the Thin Blue Line/Blue Lives Matter flag displayed on school grounds.Watkins said after pressing the issues with her school's leadership, things got worse and she felt the relationship between her and management had deteriorated.

"It became this five-week fiasco," she recalled. "Some of the white teachers were coming to talk to him because they were seeing how upset I was. I'm half-African American and my son is black."

She said she and the Black Student Union invited the principal and vice principal in to talk about the issues.

"We've got children of Latino backgrounds believing that is a partnership with ICE," she said of the flag and school resource officer.

"One of my students was like, 'It's embarrassing to be a person of color and just have that out there, like we don't exist.' No one really understands what that flag means to a person of color."

This year, Watkins began teaching at a new school.

"I think admin sees it as they dealt with a race problem," she said. "That race problem was me."

At Aloha High School, the flag has since been removed from the SRO's office, but now, one hangs in the director of public safety's office within the Beaverton School District headquarters.

Maureen Wheeler, public communications officer for the school district, said the flag at Aloha was removed "following a conversation between the principal, some staff members and the SRO about how it might be viewed by staff and students."

Wheeler noted that Leach "voluntarily removed the flag from his office."

Leach and Aloha's principal, Mr. Casteel, both declined to be interviewed for this story, deferring instead to Wheeler and the district's attorney.

District cites First Amendment, but lack of policy

The school district responded with a statement, saying it rarely regulates images or displays, citing "free speech."

"The Beaverton School District does not have a policy about office decor or displays," the district stated. "Further, the district follows the law and case law regarding the First Amendment to the United States Constitution ... that protects freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and right to petition as it pertains to a public work place and have chosen to deploy a limited, viewpoint neutral lens when evaluating concerns regarding such displays. We rely on the professional judgment of our staff as it pertains to their teaching practice or their position within the District to make choices about where and what they display in those spaces."

Watkins is now a teacher at Cedar Park Middle School, where she says the climate is much different.

White Privilege survey sparked firestorm in 2016

This isn't the first time Aloha High School has tackled issues surrounding race.

In 2016, students in Watkins' literature course responded with mixed reactions to a survey about white privilege. The survey asked senior students to assign a score to a series of questions, meant to examine how easily they move through the world, based on skin color.

The school received complaints from parents and students, and international media attention.

That same year, students at Aloha and neighboring schools walked out of class in solidarity with students at Forest Grove High School protesting a "Build a Wall" banner that two Forest Grove students had displayed briefly at the school.

Aloha and other schools in the Beaverton School District will reopen the dialog about race and racial literacy later this month, during a presentation called Conversation Around Race, scheduled for 3-6 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 29 at Southridge High School.

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