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School district officials, social media users, state senator talking about where to go from here (Stay connected to your local news! Get digital access today €' https://bit.ly/2HiTKCs)

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: STEVE BRANDON - Student athletes from St. Helens and Milwaukie high schools wear t-shirts on Jan. 25 prior to a girls basketball game. Students made the shirts in response to a series of racist comments that allegedly made on Jan. 15 when St. Helens played Parkrose High School.Racist comments allegedly made following a St. Helens High School girls basketball game in mid-January continue to bring attention to the St. Helens community.

And now the subject has made its way to the Oregon State Legislature. On Tuesday Jan. 29, Sen. Lew Frederick, a Democrat from Northeast Portland, spoke about the incident while on the Senate floor. He explained that he hopes to prompt broader conversation about laws that could be crafted to protect people from race-based intimidation, according to news reporting by Oregon Public Broadcasting, a Pamplin Media Group news partner.

Video of Frederick's comments made during the Senate chamber meeting start around the 14:20 minute mark.

The incident was first reported by Fox News 12 after the Parkrose High School basketball coach and players on the team said racial slurs were yelled at them during a game against St. Helens High School in St. Helens. Initial reports indicated the racist comments happened during the game, while others claimed it took place outside in the parking lot afterward.

St. Helens players said they weren't aware of any incident on Jan. 15, when they defeated Parkrose 61-35, until the following day.

"I didn't witness anything at the game, and I don't know what happened after it," said Maria Reardon, a sophomore on the St. Helens varsity squad. What was reported to have happened "was incredibly unfortunate," and, "we don't stand for that," Reardon added.

Some on social media said they were at the game and contested accounts that racist comments were made during the game.

Others noted that whether or not the incident played out as initially portrayed, displaying any racist behavior is unacceptable.

"Personally I feel like whether the story is correct or not, isn't as important as the conversation that's been brought up by it," social media user Olivia Bowers noted in a Facebook thread about the incident.

On Thursday, Jan. 31, the Oregon chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also issued a statement. "It is right now time to address the misappropriate handling of institutional inequalities that are too often ignored by school officials," NAACP President E.D. Mondainé stated in part in the release.

"The appalling and heinous actions displayed by the St. Helens students is a grave matter and registers in my thinking as a hate crime, a clear case for bias intimidation" Mondainé added in the release.

St. Helens school officials respond

St. Helens School District and High School staff did not respond to Spotlight requests for comment, but Principal Katy Wagner and Superintendent Scot Stockwellsent emails to parents about the incident. Both expressed apologies on behalf of the district and the intent to proactively move forward.

"What matters is that we as a school community take responsibility and refuse to tolerate discrimination of any kind," Stockwell stated, in part.

Wagner indicated that supervision will be increased at games, a school resource officer will be be present, and a student-led equity task force to increase a culture of inclusiveness will be formed. She also noted that both school districts "launched a joint investigation to identify and hold accountable those who engaged in this unacceptable behavior."

School district officials also did immediately not respond to a request for comment regarding the NAACP statement Thursday, either.

St. Helens Police Chief Brian Greenway said his department did not receive any complaints and was not summoned to the school following the incident. The school district is handling the issue internally, he said.

Athletes show support

During a Jan. 25 basketball game between St. Helens and Milwaukie High School, athletes from both teams wore t-shirts during warmups with the words "Parkrose Strong" and "Equity, Diversity, Inclusion" printed on them.

"We had a meeting with our principal and thought it would be a good idea," said St. Helens senior basketball player McKayla Foster, adding that "it's always been a competitive, head-to-head thing with Parkrose, but not a hate-each-other thing."

Just prior to the game, Wagner also read a statement before both the men's and women's basketball games.

"The actions of a few do not represent the whole of our community," Wagner said. "All of our young women stand for 'Parkrose Strong.'"

Foster commented briefly on what it meant to her to wear the t-shirts in solidarity.

"It felt good to try to re-embrace with Parkrose and to let them know that we're with them," Foster said. "And that whatever happened here has nothing to do with our basketball team and doesn't define our whole community."

St. Helens will face Parkrose again on the court during a Feb. 12 game hosted at Parkrose High School.

— Pamplin Media's Steve Brandon contributed to this story

By Nicole Thill-Pacheco
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