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The racist incident marks the latest in a string of local controversies to beset the school district

COURTESY PHOTO: NEWBERG SCHOOL DISTRICT - A staff member at Mabel Rush Elementary School in Newberg showed up to work in blackface on Friday, according to officials.

UPDATE: According to an employee at Mabel Rush elementary school, Lauren Pefferle was fired on Sept. 24.

District communications coordinator Gregg Koskela responded to a request for district comment later that day: "It is our policy not to confirm whether someone works with us or not, and not to confirm the outcome of disciplinary processes. In all these situations we follow our contracts with employees in which the first step is to place on administrative leave while we investigate and pursue any disciplinary action. That action can include termination."

A staff member at Mabel Rush Elementary School in Newberg showed up to work in Blackface on Sept. 17, calling herself Rosa Parks in protest of a vaccine mandate for all school district staff.Pefferle

A fellow staff member at the school who provided initial information on the incident said Lauren Pefferle — a special education assistant who the school district said it would not name due to it being a personnel matter — darkened her face with iodine.

The concerned staff member, who requested anonymity for this story, said Pefferle explained that she intended to look like Rosa Parks and have her actions serve as a protest of a mandate requiring school district employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Pefferle was soon removed from school grounds and placed on administrative leave, according to a district statement.

"Last Friday, one of our employees reported for work in Blackface," the Newberg School District said in a statement released Sept. 20. "The employee was removed from the location and (human resources) has placed the employee on administrative leave. The administration of Newberg Public Schools condemns all expressions of racism.

"It is important to remember how Blackface has been used to misrepresent Black communities and do harm. We acknowledge the violence this represents and the trauma it evokes regardless of intention.

"Each incident report is always taken seriously as we diligently follow our policies to investigate and take appropriate action. We continue to work towards a safe and welcoming environment in our schools that is free from bullying and reduces mental, emotional and physical harm as we move forward together in our mission of educating students."

The Blackface incident comes amid a string of news-making incidents in the school district related to race and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, a Newberg High School student was connected to a racist 'slave trade' Snapchat group, resulting in a student-led protest during a sporting event in solidarity with Newberg's Black students; and a controversial decision by the school board has led to a months-long battle to ban Black Lives Matter flags, Pride displays and other perceived "political" symbols.

Tai Harden-Moore, a Black woman and former candidate for school board who has children in the district, said Newberg can and must be better than this incident. She drew a connection from county politics to Pefferle's actions.

"This makes sense only because we have our county commissioner, Mary Starrett, who drew that line between vaccine mandates and Jim Crow," Harden-Moore said. "That was only a couple months ago. Our county leadership is saying basic public health measures are akin to Jim Crow. There is a line between our political leadership and something like this happening. Our leadership matters."

Superintendent Joe Morelock, in speaking at a press conference in Newberg, said: "I am horrified, angry and ashamed this has happened, as is nearly every other staff member. This goes against everything I and the vast majority of NSD staff have believed and it is unfathomably offensive.

Despite the nationwide blowback to her actions and with her employment at risk, Pefferle spoke on conservative Portland radio host Lars Larson's show on Sept. 23. She said she is still on administrative leave and admitted to darkening her skin and playing the part of Rosa Parks.

"I feel segregated because I am unvaccinated," Pefferle said. "Something is wrong here. The next day, I went to work and did put on some darker color on my skin part that showed. I was going about my morning duties and as there was opportunity to talk to staff … I would say I am representing Rosa Parks today regarding segregation. When I was briefly talking with a certain employee … she was very comfortable not letting me be fully heard and marched over to the principal's office."

Pefferle said she told Mabel Rush principal Tim Lauer that she was dressed as Rosa Parks and that he immediately told her to go talk with human resources.

Larson asked Pefferle if she would characterize what she did as blackface.

"I did have darker skin makeup on my face and my hands, and the parts of my body that were showing my skin," Pefferle said. "I never once thought of the word Blackface because I honestly don't even know that term. I don't know what people mean by that and I don't use that language."

Larson also asked Pefferle if she felt there was anything wrong with what she did.

"I don't," she said.

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