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Balance sought on comment on ban issue; students speak against ban and share personal stories

COURTESY PHOTO: NEWBERG SCHOOL DISTRICT - Seeking to alleviate concerns about not providing the public ample opportunity to share its views on recent events, the Newberg school board hosted a public comment-only meeting over Zoom on Sept. 22. Seeking to alleviate concerns about not providing the public ample opportunity to share its views on recent events, the Newberg School Board hosted a virtual meeting over Zoom on Sept. 22 exclusively to listen to public comments. The session revealed a stark divide between students within the district and those commentating from outside, and it showcased what appears to be universal opposition to the board's recent actions among Newberg students.

More than 40 speakers appeared at the meeting over the course of two hours, with a near-even split among those against and those in favor of a proposed ban on Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ Pride and other perceived political symbols. But the backgrounds of those speaking for each side were significant, as was the focus of their individual statements.

Among those who spoke out against the ban were more than a dozen Newberg students. No local students spoke in favor of the ban and many of the student speakers identified themselves as members of the LGBTQ community.

"You've told us that the priority goes to students this meeting, but I've only seen two groups of students get to speak before me," Sarah Morgan, a seventh grade student at Mountain View middle school, said. Morgan said the voices of minority students was not being heard.

"I have firsthand experience of the difference that diligent expressions of support can make," said Midas Jenkins, a student at Newberg's Catalyst School who identifies as transgender. "I am not political. I am human."

"I've been experiencing a lot of fears because of who I am and the things I know myself to be true," said Dandy Johnstone, an NHS junior who identifies as queer and transgender. "We are revoking the ability for Black and queer students to express themselves and feel safe at school."

"If you are upset by a flag with some colors and some words on it, I strongly encourage you to get a hobby," Cooper Oakes, a sophomore at NHS who identifies as gay, said.

Some recent alumni spoke out against the ban as well.

"Never once did a student come with a concern that a BLM or Pride flag was a distraction to their learning," Moriah Reid, one of the 2019 valedictorians at NHS, said. "This culture war threatens the lives of students. There are consequences to your actions. The blood of my peers will be on your hands."

The controversy surrounding the decision to ban symbols showed itself throughout the night. Those who spoke in favor of the school board's political ban expressed their anger toward the idea of symbols they perceive to be political being in schools, yet some focused heavily on loosely related political subjects they believe to be connected to this issue such as critical race theory, Marxism, indoctrination in the classroom, and defunding the police.

Most of the roughly 20 speakers who say they favored the ban either did not make their connection to the district clear or were older adults that had been through the school system themselves many years prior. Some of the speakers were not from Newberg: a man from McMinnville spoke at length about the Black Lives Matter organization and Marxism, all the while holding up a three-fingered "OK" symbol commonly used by white supremacist groups. Another speaker appeared to be living in Los Angeles according to his social media profiles, but said his family has resided in Newberg for more than a century. He claimed the school district is trying to "racially cleanse" its staff.

"School is a place for learning, it is not a place to push what you believe ... onto young minds," John Kitchen, NHS class of 2002, said. "We voted out a majority liberal board and voted in a conservative board."

"Supporting these signs in the schools is actually what is political," Peggy Kilburg, a Newberg resident, said. "All of these signs, including BLM and LGBTQ, should be considered political. Just go to their websites."

"Schools should be places of learning, not ideological petri dishes for indoctrination," David Klaus, a 23-year Newberg resident, said. "A clear majority of Newberg residents would agree with the board's decision."

Mark Colby, a Newberg resident, brought up the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man from Minnesota killed by police in 2020. Floyd had been arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 when he was killed by a white police officer, who knelt on Floyd's neck for nine minutes. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was convicted of murdering Floud

"Anti-racist policy is actually racist in itself," Colby said. "George Floyd was a convicted felon. It is also appalling that the radical left are out there trying to personally attack and harm board members."

"Please show tolerance to people who have an opinion you don't like," Jerrie Lyda, a 1989 valedictorian at NHS, said. "Many people who support the school board are afraid to come forward for fear of retribution."

Board moves on to crucial meeting ahead

With the public having commented at greater length than at any meeting prior, the school board can take what it heard and come to a final policy decision on the BLM/Pride/politics ban.

There was a clear, concerted effort on the part of chairman Dave Brown, who selected the speakers for the Sept. 22 meeting, to balance opinions on the ban issue. Speakers in favor often alternated with those against and were it not for a group of five young Newberg students who packed into one session to speak out against the ban, the balance of speakers would have been essentially dead even.

Opponents of the ban have claimed that Brown has stacked speakers to create false balance during public comment. More than 50 additional people requested to comment at the Sept. 22 meeting but were unable and their ideological makeup is unclear. Brown added an ideological question to the public comment request form, so that information could be made publicly available.

A potential adoption of official policy language for the ban is expected at the board's regular Sept. 28 meeting. Other hot-button political issues could be on the docket as well. Despite the board pressing on in its efforts, the local teachers' union and ACLU still may move forward with lawsuits against the district if this policy is adopted. In addition, Superintendent Joe Morelock has said the legal advice he's received from district lawyers is that he can't legally implement the ban on Black Lives Matter and Pride symbols if the ban is implemented.

For more information on upcoming school board meetings and to read agendas and board packets when they're posted, visit the Newberg School District's website.

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