Tear gas, other munitions delay Cottonwood School reopening
While students across Oregon returned to school weeks ago as mandated by the governor, the Cottonwood School of Civics and Science in Southwest Portland didn't reopen its classrooms for hybrid learning until Monday, April 12. Parents said the school had to delay its reopening date to allow for hygienic testing after repeated deployments of tear gas and pepper balls by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents.
The K-8 charter school on South Bancroft Street is a neighbor to the federal building that has seen protests and demonstrations met with crowd-control munitions like tear gas agents and pepper ball shots. Cottonwood school administrators say the munitions have repeatedly landed on the school grounds since January, including the school's playground, which remained closed off with caution tape during the first day back to school.
School leaders, parents and Multnomah County commissioners are pleading with the Department of Homeland Security to cease the use of chemical weapons near the school.
"Today was our first day back to school in over a year," Amanda McAdoo, director of the Cottonwood School, said Monday during a press briefing. "It was so wonderful to see the kids, but it was sad because they couldn't be on our playground, being together and playing."
The playground is likely to remain closed for the rest of the school year.
McAdoo said staff and parent volunteers spent Sunday cleaning up spent and unspent pepper balls from the school yard. The night before, protests at the ICE facility next door included a fire being set to plywood around the building's façade. Federal agents responded with less-than-lethal weapons, which infiltrated the grounds of the school.
School leaders are currently awaiting soil sample results to find out if it's safe to allow kids back on the playground.
"The fiber of our school feels very fragile right now," Monica Zeigler, a parent of a Cottonwood student, said Sunday. "If we mitigate the soil and then two weeks later, they use tear gas again, all of the work is for naught."
In February, McAdoo sent a letter to DHS Acting Secretary David Pekoske and Tae D. Johnson, acting ICE director, asking the agency to immediately stop using chemical weapons during protests due to the impacts on the school.
Oregon lawmakers, including Sen. Ron Wyden, Rep. Ginny Burdick and Rep. Lisa Reynolds, followed up with their own inquiries and demands of DHS for answers. In March, Multnomah County commissioners drafted their own letter, asking the agency to prohibit the use of chemical munitions in close proximity to schools and neighborhoods.
"They're the experts, they have the tactical training and they need to direct the right interventions in the right situations, including our Sheriff's Office," Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran said Monday. "To use this wholesale tactic of chemical munitions that can impact the health and safety of our whole community, that's not acceptable."
"I get angry when I think about it," McAdoo said Monday. "DHS, the federal police, none of them have responded to our letter. None of them have given us a warning that a protest is going to happen. None of them have offered to help clean up the munitions that they have sprayed into our yard."
McAdoo didn't rule out the possibility of litigation if the situation continues.
Aside from the issues affecting the school grounds, the school director criticized the federal immigration agency for its family separation tactics, saying Cottonwood "stands in solidarity with those working to stop ICE abuses."
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