'Students need to feel safe before they can learn'
On Monday, Nov. 1, students from Lake Oswego and Newberg joined together for a panel event hosted by Respond to Racism.
Over 100 people — including school district administration, school board members and well-known faces like Lake Oswego Mayor Joe Buck and Oregon Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner — convened over Zoom, and listened to the students' firsthand perspectives on how school board decisions impact youth, and how tokens of identity like Pride and Black Lives Matter flags are much more than memorabilia. Participants at the event asked not to be identified in this story.
Earlier this year, the Newberg School Board made national headlines when it voted to ban Black Lives Matter, Pride and other symbols deemed to be political from school grounds. Lake Oswego School Board members expressed support for marginalized Newberg students at a September meeting.
At the Nov. 1 event, one Newberg student reflected on how her classmates felt when the Newberg School District banned Pride and Black Lives Matter symbols. She said that students felt like they were not being listened to, and that the Newberg School Board did not have any empathy.
A Newberg teacher on the panel said that alongside other staff members in the district, he wrote letters to the school board asking that they vote no on the proposed ban. In the letter he specified that the bare minimum staff can do is create safe spaces in schools for all students, no matter how they identify.
"Students need to be safe before they can learn," he said in the letter.
Meanwhile, Lake Oswego community members and school district representatives, meanwhile, were able to learn from their students about what could change in their district.
One Lake Oswego high school student said that although not always broadcasted explicitly, racism and discrimination are happening within the school district. She also said that the efforts to make schools welcoming environments for all students, no matter who they are, are not enough.
"Something like this wouldn't have happened, if we were making enough progress," she said.
Another LO community member who graduated recently from the district said that Newberg's action was more than restricting flags, but rather restricting people's Black and LGBTQ+ identities.
"Those are people's actual identities and that cannot be restricted within our curriculum within our schools or within our communities at all," they said.
The Lake Oswego students stretched their support to Newberg students by saying they are standing with them as they navigate against the mandate. They also provided a tip on how school boards could improve their relationships with students: give youth power. One student recommended that school board representatives — there are two on the Lake Oswego board — should be more than "tokens" but rather have actual say in board decisions.
Both groups of students chimed in on why symbols of pride and race are important. One student said that flags are safe spaces. When students see Pride or BLM flags, stickers or other items, they view them as symbols of representation.
The meeting wrapped up with Wagner introducing two bills for the 2022 legislative session. Senate Bill 334 would require all school boards to receive a biannual audit and implement strategies around equity training. The other bill was a direct response to what happened in Newberg and Albany, and would prohibit school boards from terminating superintendents who implement state-mandated best practices that relate to diversity, inclusion and public health practices.
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