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Morelock, current directors Piros and Penner, former board member Pená among nominees for Oregon Safe Schools Award


Five local community members and an education organization are being recognized for their contributions to fostering a safe school environment for LGBTQIA+ students.

The Oregon Safe Schools and Communities Coalition (OSSCC), an organization that supports community endeavors to decrease LGBTQIA+ youth suicide and other harmful behaviors, nominated nine individuals and one organization for their 2022 Safe Schools Awards.

"OSSCC believes it's important to provide members of our community with real examples of Oregonians who are working to make schools better for LGBTQIA+ and all youth, so we created the Safe Schools Award in 2013," a press release from the organization said. "Each year we invite people to nominate a person, school, district or organization that has been doing great things to make schools a safe and nurturing place for all students, educators and families."

This is the first year anyone from Newberg has been nominated.

Local honorees include current school board directors Rebecca Piros and Brandy Penner; former school board director Ines Pená; former Newberg school superintendent and current Woodburn School District Superintendent Joe Morelock; Newberg High School counselor and Gay-Straight Alliance advisor Sara Linnertz; and the Newberg Education Association.

Joy Wallace, chairwoman of the OSSCC board, said three people nominated the five local individuals and the NEA for recognition, "because they felt all these people went beyond the norm to help students be safer in school."

Piros, Penner, Pená, Morelock and the NEA resisted the conservative majority of the Newberg school board's efforts to ban political gay pride and Black Lives Matter symbols in local classrooms. The controversy gave rise to a rash of lawsuits, recall efforts and public upheaval over the course of more than six months in 2021 and has continued into 2022. Morelock saw his contract terminated by the board's conservative majority in November, while Pená resigned her board seat in February citing the toxic environment in which the board was operating.

"I am sure it was because they all took a stand to help make sure that LGBTQ++ students felt safe in school and objected to eliminating all references to Black Lives Matter, gay pride flags, etc., in the schools," Wallace said. "They thought these things in school help students feel safe and supported."

Penner's comments mirrored those made by Piros.

"As board members we remain unflinching in our commitment to supporting all students," she said. "Since July 2021, LGBTQ+ students and staff specifically have been targeted by the board majority as undeserving of the rights afforded to them under both the Oregon and U.S. Constitutions. Simply standing up for the inherent dignity of every human in our buildings has become an act of bravery. …

"We will continue building toward a community that demands fundamental human rights and dignity and celebrates pride in our students and staff."

The other nominees include Sherwood High School visual arts instructor Raychell Rohrwasser, Canby High School English teacher Joel Ekdahl, Reynolds High School assistant principal Emmett Pearson-Brown and Grants Pass High School students Deenie Bulyalart and Evan Tucker.

Kate Hildenbrandt, Oregon Department of Education's civil rights and Title IX specialist, will MC a gala on Zoom on May 7 that will include information on Oregon equity issues. Afterwards, each honoree will discuss what they have done to garner recognition.

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