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Students, community react to racially charged verbal attack on FGHS English instructor last week

Editor's Note: Meysha Harville specifically requested that the News-Times use the full, exact wording of the student's comment.

COURTESY PHOTO - Good friends Zack Branning (left) and Eddy Sanchez tracked down the student who called their teacher the n-word and brought him to the office. But they also want to protect him so have decided not to tell anyone his name.Last week, a sophomore student at Forest Grove High School poked his head inside the classroom of an African American female teacher, said "There's the nigger," and walked out.

The three-second incident sparked a firestorm in the community and the greater Portland area, in private conversations and online, where the News-Times' initial Facebook post reached nearly 22,600 people and was shared 115 times.

The incident happened Tuesday, March 8, as students passed between classes around 10:45 a.m.

Zack Branning said he and about 20 other students were already inside the room, getting ready for Meysha Harville's freshman English class, when the boy made the comment. Some people sitting near the door said it sounded like he was talking under his breath.

But Branning said it was "loud enough for everyone to hear." The student appeared to be talking to a friend who was with him, said Branning, who looked up when he heard the comment. By that time, the boy was already ducking back out of the room, he said.

Harville went out into the hall but could not find the student.

Freshman Max Kimberly missed the incident but entered the classroom soon afterward. He said Harville started off trying to follow the normal lesson plan but looked very upset and "you could tell by her voice something was off."

One of the students asked if she was okay, Kimberly said, and then Harville told them what had happened.

"Everyone in the class just got completely silent and they looked around at each other knowing that it was super messed up," he said. "And some people went over and hugged her."

As Harville's teaching assistant prepared to take over the class, Branning and his friend Eddy Sanchez looked at each other. "Eddy and I were like, 'Let's go get this kid.'"

Sanchez was in the room at the time but hadn't heard the comment or seen the student. A classmate told him who it was, however, and Sanchez realized he knew the boy.

The two went to the counseling office to find out what class the student had at that moment. They told counseling staff they were working on a project with him and needed to talk to him, Branning said.

The classroom was upstairs and when they reached it, Sanchez went inside and asked the teacher if he could "have a word" with the student who, like Sanchez, is Latino.

When the boy joined them in the hall, Sanchez suggested he "walk with me for a sec," then asked, "Why did you say that?"

"What are you talking about?" he says the student answered.

"A lot of people heard you," Sanchez continued.

"He just like smirked and giggled," Sanchez remembers. "I said, 'It's not funny, dude. She's like, crying.' He said, 'That wasn't my intention, to make her cry.'"

Branning remembers the student's explanation for using the n-word: "Everyone says it."

He and Sanchez escorted the student to the office, where Sanchez told the receptionist what had happened in Harville's room.

Sanchez and Branning returned to class. They decided not to reveal the student's identity to anyone. "We didn't want people to beat him up," Sanchez said. "Why bring that on him if he could just learn from the experience?"

According to several sources, the student has been suspended. (See "Consequences" sidebar.)News-Times File Photo

FGHS senior Elizabeth Burnard said she learned what happened from her own English teacher, Kari Bloomquist, later that day. Bloomquist opened her last class by relating the incident to her students.

"We were all just completely speechless. Ms. Bloomquist got very emotional so we were trying to comfort her. We couldn't believe something like that could happen in our school."

By the end of the school day, news of the incident was spreading through the community via tweets, Facebook posts and the rumor mill.

Max Kimberly felt bad for Harville, who is one of his favorite teachers, and he wanted to take some sort of action.

"I was worried she would have a bad impression of what Forest Grove was like," he said.

Kimberly remembered seeing an online "joke petition" to have Justin Bieber deported and that gave him an idea. Googling "petitions," he found change.org, where he wrote up a "Call for action in Forest Grove High School; we won't tolerate racism" petition.

Addressed to "The Oregonian," Forest Grove High School, Forest Grove School District and City of Forest Grove, the petition starts by noting the teacher's skill and popularity, then suggests she has been "bullied into leaving" by this incident and that the student should face "the appropriate consequences — expulsion from the school district."

(Harville denied she is leaving Forest Grove High School, where she has been teaching since the beginning of this school year.)

Principal Karen O'Neill stated in a Wednesday evening email that "This particular incident was appalling to so many of our students who either witnessed it or heard about it after the fact...We had students immediately report to counseling and administrators how upset they were by the comment and something needed to be done immediately; even today more students are taking action to voice their support of the diversity of staff and students at FGHS and that racially disparaging comments will not be tolerated."

One of the things that makes FGHS a very special place is the diversity we have in our staff and students, she wrote, and we have always been very proud of that fact." According to O'Neill, Harville is one of two African American teachers at the school.

According to Forest Grove School District Chief of Staff Connie Potter, there are also 14 Latino staff members at FGHS — out of 156 total — about half of which are teachers. The student body is split roughly 50-50 between whites and Latinos.

Harville left school early after the incident and stayed away Wednesday but was back in class Thursday morning.

"I'm appreciative of the community outpouring of support," she wrote in an email to the News-Times Thursday. "I have no intention of leaving the school district at this time. I hope to work with the school district to address my concerns. I have no further comment on it right now."

"She's a great teacher," Branning said. Harville starts every day with a "joke of the day" or some bad puns, he said. "The students can just really connect with her, like she's really open-minded and funny."

Her classes always fill up, Kimberly said. "She couldn't get another desk in her room so many people want to be in her class."

Editor's Note: Meysha Harville specifically requested that the News-Times use the full, exact wording of the student's comment.




By Jill Rehkopf Smith
Associate Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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Response to n-word could include restorative justice

After a Forest Grove High School student called an African American teacher the n-word last week, people were not only outraged — they were intensely interested in what consequences the student would face.

Would he be suspended? Expelled? Would he get just a slap on the wrist?

FGHS Principal Karen O'Neill said she can't talk about specific disciplinary action against a student due to confidentiality requirements, but several credible sources told the News-Times the student was suspended.

In addition, the mother of the student contacted Ernesto Villaraldo, the Forest Grove Police Department's School Resource Officer, and asked him to talk with her son about his behavior, according to Capt. Mike Herb.

"SRO Villaraldo had a very blunt and straightforward chat with this young man," Herb said. "He told him how inappropriate and completely out of line it was ... in fact, he suggested that perhaps a letter of apology would be in order as a start in attempting to reconcile his actions."

"Honestly, we haven't decided exactly what our next steps will be," O'Neill said last week.

FGHS freshman Max Kimberly has an idea that seems to be drawing some support. Kimberly started an online petition calling for the community to take a stand against racism and for theForest Grove High School Freshman Max Kimberly was so upset after a student referred to one of his teachers using the n-word that he started an online petition calling for Forest Grove to stand against racism and for the student to be expelled. student to be expelled. He thinks expulsion would "send the message that in 2016 our schools won't tolerate that kind of behavior. It sets a precedent."

FGHS student Michelle Gonzalez agrees. "Racial bias should not be allowed in Forest Grove High School, but how are we supposed to fight against it if we don't even know what is happening, or our own officials are not standing up for it, or if the person that says it gets to go home thinking he can do it again and there would be no consequences?" she said. "The student should be expelled because racial assaults are an issue we should not allow to happen again."

But others think it would be better to leave the student in school and instead expel the lack of awareness that led him to use the slur. That calls for a creative, constructive approach like restorative justice.

A chance to dig deeper

Restorative justice focuses on the needs of the victim and offender and involves discussion, education and reconciliation that can help repair the harm done.

It provides "a chance to dig deeper and gives everyone a voice in the process where there may not otherwise be another avenue for these difficult conversations," said Carley Berkey of Beaverton Dispute Resolution.

Restorative justice programs are becoming increasingly popular in schools, said Lynne Schroeder, director of the Washington County Juvenile Department, which is designing its own program.

While FGHS doesn't have a staff person dedicated to restorative justice, O'Neill said school officials have used similar practices in the past to help the errant student "acknowledge the mistake and make good."

In one case of vandalism, the student completed community service and repaired the damaged property. In cases of harassment, offenders might have to sit down with the victim.

Previous diversity education has been effective, O'Neill said, with the school's well-known campaign to embrace special-needs students. The word "retarded" used to be commonplace, she said. Not anymore.

But administrators are still discussing the best way to handle the incident last week. "We need to do a better job of educating our youth around the power of words," O'Neill said. "Throughout the investigation, several students commented about being on the receiving end of racial harassment in their life — whether in social situations in the community, at school, or over social media."

O'Neill is considering an assembly during Diversity Week in April that could focus on both the casual and malicious use of racial slurs of all kinds.

In Portland, Grant High School administrators are also planning classroom discussions and an all-school assembly this month after members of the boys soccer team used the n-word at a group dinner last fall, according to an article in Grant's campus magazine.

Restoration starts with apology

One example of an effective restorative justice program is in Beaverton.

Youth who commit low-level crimes such as harassment, bullying, vandalism or possession of drugs or alcohol can appear before the Beaverton Police Department's Youth Peer Court.

They stand before a local attorney who has volunteered to be "judge" and other youth who are volunteering as "jurors" who decide the punishment.

"How do we restore what you've damaged in the community or someone you've hurt?" Program Coordinator Consuelo Star asks the youth.

Punishment usually includes community service and an apology letter to the victim. In addition, the youth meet regularly with a mentor — Star, Beaverton police officers, local lawyers — for six to nine months. They also participate in workshops on self-esteem, impulsive behavior, decision-making and community.

Ninety percent complete the program, Star said, compared to 60 percent back when it just gave out punishments.

Every once in a while, she says, youth keep coming to regular meetings and mock court proceedings even after they've completed the requirements. Star tries to keep in touch with kids after they've completed the program as well.

"It's about helping the kid understand the harm they've caused," said Schroeder, "and it's about learning, growth, taking responsibility and healing."

Stephanie Haugen

Reporter

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