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Public comment considerable at Tuesday meeting, legality of resolution questioned

PMG PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - A rally in support of the LGBTQ community and Black Lives Matter effort gathered Tuesday afternoon in front of the Newberg School District office.

A trio of motions put forth by Newberg School Board vice-chairman Brian Shannon elicited ample controversy at a board of directors meeting in July, with Shannon utilizing the power of the board's conservative majority to promote rolling back some of the district's inclusionary policies. At the Tuesday board meeting, after an unprecedented volume of public comment – the majority of which opposed his motions – Shannon pressed forward.

The board approved Shannon's motion 4-3 to ban Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ Pride symbols, signs, flags, apparel or any other displays from Newberg school buildings because they are "political" in his view. Under this directive, the only flags allowed to be displayed are the United States and Oregon flags, with exceptions as the board's policy committee sees fit.

When it came time to vote, Shannon amended his originial motion to also include all BLM and Pride apparel and buttons, but after being pressed on the legality of the last-minute changes and how they'd apply to students' freedom of speech, Shannon backed off somewhat and said the apparel portion of the directive would apply only to district staff and faculty. However, the overall directive appears to stand on shaky legal ground and raises questions about how First Amendment rights, teacher's union contracts and school board policies will potentially be violated if the directive is enacted.PMG PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Those attending the rally were urging the Newberg school board to reject resolutions that would bar schools from displaying LGBTQ and BLM signs and other symbols.

Superintendent Joe Morelock will now speak to the school district's lawyers to discuss how – if at all – he can enact these changes as directed by the board. Legal challenges are expected and the motion's passage marked a pivotal moment for a conservative majority on the board that opponents have characterized as engaging in a "political takeover."

Shannon, chairman Dave Brown, Renee Powell, and Trevor DeHart voted yes on the motion to ban BLM and Pride symbols. Ines Peña, Brandy Penner and Rebecca Piros voted against the resolution.

The "Save Our Schools" PAC – a conservative political action committee – played a key role in securing the four-person majority on Newberg's board with its financial and promotional aid during the campaign. Shannon says he simply trying to get politics out of local schools.

"The main goal of this is to get political symbols and divisive symbols out of our schools so we can focus on the already difficult task of educating our students in the subjects," Shannon said. "It is not fair for one particular ideology – the ideology of social justice – to declare itself above the fact that it is an ideology and claim that everyone has to support it. They call these social justice symbols. Social justice is an ideology and it is an ideology that people can legitimately oppose."

Two other motions Shannon placed on the agenda were tabled due to time constraints on what ended up being a four-hour meeting: an overhaul of the language in the district's anti-racism resolution, which he opposed, and a rejection of the "Every Student Belongs" policy mandated by the state. Those issues, along with the governor's mask mandate and how it applies to K-12 schools, will likely be discussed at a yet-to-be scheduled special board meeting later this month. Shannon also expressed Tuesday a desire for the district to pursue legal action against the state for mandating that children wear masks in school buildings.

Feedback includes intense emotions, stories, reports of bigotry

Public comment on the divisive political issues – primarily the issue of BLM and Pride signs – was significant. District officials say they received more than 500 emails on the matter. Brown said the input was relatively split among those who agreed and disagreed with Shannon's motions, but former chairwoman Penner and other board members insist the voices in opposition had a sizeable majority.

Regardless, a total of more than 90 people attempted to speak during the public comment section of the Tuesday meeting held online; 31 were allowed to voice their opinions due to time constraints and a majority of those 31 were in opposition to the motions. Some of the callers-in who spoke in support of Shannon's motions also trafficked in bigotry, conspiracy theories and misinformation about a number of topics – some of which were only loosely related to the topic at hand.

"It's disingenuous to say that Black Lives Matter is not a political organization," one woman named Amber, who supported Shannon's motions, said while addressing the board. "I keep hearing George Floyd and the other names of people who have died. That's true that those are tragic incidents, but I have a rap sheet right here of 14 charges. I don't want a George Floyd Day for my children and I don't want to uplift a criminal.

"It's also disingenuous to say that the LGBQT (sic) is not a political agenda. It most certainly is. I try to teach my children to love everyone … Sanity seems to have left our school."

Among the majority of public commenters who were against the motion was former board candidate Tai Harden-Moore, who lost to Powell for the Zone 5 director spot. Harden-Moore, who is Black, alleged racism on the part of her opponents during the campaign and insisted on the importance of the signs the board voted to take down.

"Black students and other students of color are under attack in Newberg schools," Harden-Moore said. "I know this to be true because my son was called a n***er at school. I also know this to be true because as one of the advisors to the Black student union, I had a Black male student share with me that he was called the N-word so much at Newberg High School that he made the request to leave his classes early in order to avoid being called or hearing that word in the hallway. For that student, seeing a Black Lives Matter sign hanging in a classroom helped him identify which teachers were safe for him to talk to."

One of the district staff members who spoke out against the motion was Josh Reid, a school counselor in the district and father to three NHS graduates. Reid signed on to a letter penned by the district's 16 school counselors asking board members to vote no and allow the signs and displays. Reid called out Shannon's previous remarks that BLM and Pride signage and displays are a form of "indoctrination" that force students to believe certain political principles. He insisted the signs and other forms of support stay in order to make students feel safe.

"Students must first have their basic needs met and have a personal sense of safety before they can learn," Reid said. "Hungry or afraid students are not passing all of their classes or graduating on time. These three policy changes would undermine our ability to be able to help students feel safe. When these students enter our schools and see the symbols that we mean to communicate love and support and affirmation, they don't see propaganda or 'indoctrination' or any ideology. They see a glimmer of hope that there can still be safe spaces and safe people in their schools. On behalf of all 16 school counselors in our district, I beg you, vote no."

Movement toward acceptance of LGBTQ youth have increasingly made their way into classrooms in recent years, with Pride flags and other signage serving as just one of many inclusionary efforts on the part of schools and districts. Student clubs, schoolwide discussions and some curriculum items have aided that effort as well. Several LGBTQ adults spoke at the meeting Tuesday and shared their stories urging members to vote no. The father of an LGBTQ student shared his perspective as well. Richard Arnold has lived in Newberg for more than two decades and has put four children through the Newberg school system.

"My sophomore (at Newberg High School) is transgender," Arnold said. "One of the saddest things I ever had to deal with was that she didn't feel safe enough to talk to me about how she'd felt like that for two years after she realized who she was."

Arnold said he was puzzled why the school board felt it necessary to take the steps they did Tuesday.

"I don't even understand how this came to be," he said. "Was there a multitude of students who were talking about feeling threatened by identifications inside the classroom? Was there a teacher that was pushing their agenda on so many students that parents were getting complained to? I thought the Newberg School District was doing just fine. One of the greatest things I loved about this school district is I felt like my daughter was mostly accepted by her peers and her friends."

Special meeting on tap

Because of the extensive public comment and lengthy discussion regarding Shannon's first motion, the board will address the other two at its next meeting: the change in language to the anti-racism resolution and a rejection of the Every Student Belongs policy. The next official Newberg School Board meeting is set for Sept. 14, after school starts, but Brown expressed a desire to bring board members together sooner to address Shannon's two motions and further discuss Gov. Kate Brown's mask requirement for K-12 schools.

Further information on the upcoming special meeting of the Newberg School Board will be posted at www.Newberg.k12.or.us and on the district's social media pages. Avenues to submit or sign up for public comment will be available there as well, and the board's contact information is readily available on the district's website for those seeking to weigh in on past and future motions.


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