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The school board's decision likely has strong impacts on LGBTQ youths and students of color.

PMG PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Nearly 200 people gather in August at a flag pole on First Street in Newberg, to protest a decision by the Newberg School Board and to support the display of Black Lives Matter and Pride flags in the schools.Last June the Newberg School Board banned Black Lives Matter and Pride symbols from Newberg schools. When there was pushback, the board, by a four to three margin, expanded the ban to "all political symbols." Newberg Board Vice-chair Brian Shannon, a proponent of both bans, stated: "This policy is so innocuous. It just says that teachers can't display political symbols at work while they're on school time. That should not be controversial." BALMER

Mr. Shannon failed to provide context. Previously, Black Lives Matter and Pride symbols were permitted in Newberg schools. Banning "all symbols" was like offering someone a microphone, rescinding the offer, and then deciding to take away all microphones, even microphones from those who had never requested a microphone.

I think of Branch Rickey, the executive who signed Jackie Robinson. Rickey, the baseball coach at Ohio Wesleyan University in 1904, convinced a hotel clerk to allow a Black player, who was denied a room, to room with him. Though the Newberg ban is subtler, the subtext remains: Out of sight; out of mind.

I think back to when I taught high school speech at a summer school in Eugene, Oregon, in the late 1980s. A student delivered a speech based on a Time magazine article that posited sexual orientation was not a choice. The student, nervous, asked if he could read his speech off of his notecards. His classmates soon realized he was "coming out." When he concluded his speech, he sobbed. His classmates applauded. He felt, in that moment, safe and accepted.

Ostensibly, Newberg's ban of all political symbols is egalitarian; however, not all symbols are created equally. Stars and Bars, Swastikas, donkeys, elephants and ACLU and Green Peace symbols represent affiliations derived from individual choices. Race is innate and immutable. And according to an August 2019 study published in Science Magazine: "Sexuality cannot be pinned down by biology, psychology or life experiences, this study and others show, because human sexual attraction is decided by all these factors."

In Newberg's case, Black Lives Matter and Pride symbols depict historically suppressed groups trying to be heard and accepted; unfortunately, two typical responses to suppression are rebellion and self-loathing, conditions antithetical to academic excellence.

It has been reported that displaying Black Lives Matter and Pride symbols makes some students feel uncomfortable. These students deserve consideration and compassion, too. However, I can imagine no safer scenario to help students navigate their unease than a public space supervised by caring adults augmented by empathic caregivers at home. While grappling with their discomfort, these students may discover that suppressing that which distresses them today may compromise their tomorrows. They may learn that employing curiosity, tolerance, understanding and acceptance will better equip them for a future in which one of life's nagging themes is feeling uncomfortable.

Portland's Center stage hosts discussions titled "Productive Discomfort." Though the panel focuses on issues within the theater, its title could describe anyone navigating a confusing, chaotic and evolving society. In 2015 the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages were legal in all 50 states. A 2018 U.S. Census report projected that, by the middle of 2020, nonwhites will account for the majority of the United States' 74 million children. As of 2021, transgender individuals are expressly permitted to serve openly as their identified gender. Some productive discomfort would benefit all U.S. citizens. The Newberg School Board's ban on "all political symbols" muted the voices of Black and LBGTQ students. It also precluded all of its students from learning to inhabit, adapt, collaborate and thrive in an inexorably diversifying United States.

I'm trying to figure out how that is in any way innocuous.

Bob Balmer is a resident of Southeast Portland.


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