Milwaukie girls take action against racial slurs in St. Helens
Until now Milwaukie High School's girls basketball team has been largely uncredited in the media for its part in seeking justice for Parkrose basketball players who were subjected to racial slurs during a game in mid-January.
Milwaukie players reacted strongly to reports that league-rival Parkrose was subjected to the slurs by a few fans at St. Helens on Jan. 15. Although the rivals are known for heated battles on the court, Milwaukie and Parkrose players end each game with hugs in addition to the usual high-fives.
During a team practice session Jan. 17, Milwaukie Coach Michael White said he walked into a discussion in which the players developed the idea of wearing T-shirts displaying "Parkrose Strong" on one side and "Equity, Diversity, Inclusion" on the other.
"It was very organic, and I'm not exactly sure who brought up the phrase 'Parkrose Strong' and to do it as a shirt," White said. "I'm very proud of them for coming up with this."
During the Jan. 17 team meeting, White said he remembered warning the Milwaukie basketball players about potential negative feedback for wearing the shirts.
"By doing this, you need to think about what you're doing and that it might not all be positive," White recalled telling the team.
White said that the team members didn't flinch.
"They said that they didn't care about any negative feedback and they just wanted to show that they cared," White said.
Milwaukie students insisted that the shirts be ready to wear by their next game with St. Helens, just a week from the team meeting. One of the Milwaukie assistant coaches runs a business class that does screen printing and banners in the Tigard-Tualatin School District, which made and donated the 20 shirts, enough for both JV and varsity teams to warm up with them on.
"They wanted to make sure that we had those shirts by that game, so we did what we had to do to make it happen," White said.
White approached MHS Principal Carmen Gelman with the idea. Milwaukie players later met with Gelman to discuss the situation and get approval for their idea.
"I'm really a big proponent of student voice," Gelman said. "I'm always telling students, especially when they're arguing about things that really don't matter, to put your energy into things you can make a difference with."
Gelman traveled with the team to St. Helens for its game on Jan. 25 and reached out to St. Helens Principal Katy Wagner to work out the details. Both teams — Milwaukie and St. Helens — wore the shirts during warmups, took a picture together, and wore the shirts for the national anthem.
"It was such a cool thing how it all came together," Gelman said. "It turned out really well and I think it empowered the girls and helped to teach them that they can make a difference. They're feeling pretty good."
Aaron Moreno, MHS assistant principal of athletics, also is proud of the teams for taking a stand.
"What is it that we are asking our kids to do?" Moreno said. "It's to stand up and promote equity and diversity and inclusion. And that's what they're doing."
North Clackamas School District Superintendent Matt Utterback also praised the Milwaukie players for their actions.
"As one of our five core values, NCSD strives to infuse equity into everything we do as a school district," Utterback wrote in his monthly email newsletter to parents. "Kudos to both the administration and the team for reacting to a bad situation in a way that positively impacted others and reflected the values of the players, the school and the district. Well done!"
MHS players wore the shirts again for a home game versus Parkrose on Feb. 6 and during a game in which St. Helens visited Milwaukie on Feb. 22.
Milwaukie's coach said the basketball team has received nothing but positive feedback, despite initial fears of a backlash.
"We received immediate messages from Parkrose players on how much they appreciated our shirts," White said.
On Jan. 29, State Sen. Lew Frederick, (D-Portland), spoke to the Oregon Legislature, hoping the incident would prompt broader conversation about laws that could be crafted to protect people from race-based intimidation.
St. Helens Principal Katy Wagner and Superintendent Scot Stockwell sent emails to parents about the incident. Both expressed apologies on behalf of the district and the intent to proactively move forward.
"What matters is that we as a school community take responsibility and refuse to tolerate discrimination of any kind," Stockwell stated, in part.
Wagner indicated that supervision will be increased at games, a school resource officer will be be present, and a student-led equity task force to increase a culture of inclusiveness will be formed. She also noted that both school districts "launched a joint investigation to identify and hold accountable those who engaged in this unacceptable behavior."
Prior to the Jan. 25 game with Milwaukie, St. Helens senior basketball player McKayla Foster said the team had a meeting with Wagner, who said it would be a good idea to wear Milwaukie's shirts.
"It's always been a competitive, head-to-head thing with Parkrose, but not a hate-each-other thing," Foster said.
Just prior to the game, Wagner also read a statement.
"The actions of a few do not represent the whole of our community," Wagner said. "All of our young women stand for 'Parkrose Strong.'"
Foster commented briefly on what it meant to her to wear the T-shirts in solidarity.
"It felt good to try to re-embrace with Parkrose and to let them know that we're with them," Foster said. "And that whatever happened here has nothing to do with our basketball team and doesn't define our whole community."
Pamplin Media's Steve Brandon and Nicole Thill-Pacheco contributed to this story.