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School district board members discuss policy around racist behavior, symbols

PMG FILE PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN - Leaders of SAFE have hosted multiple protests, calling for change in how administrators address the use of racial slurs by students and for a ban of the Confederate flag. After hearing testimony from the leaders of Students Advocating For Equality Thursday, July 30, and some discussion, the Oregon Trail School District Board of Directors will move forward with further discussion on combatting racism at Sandy High. The first, but not last, step will be a resolution condemning racism, which will be drafted by Superintendent Aaron Bayer and the leaders of SAFE.

In their pre-recorded and written statements, the students appealed to the board to consider education as a tool to correct students who've used racist language or, in the event that the Confederate flag is banned on campuses as requested, to correct students who've displayed the Confederate flag. They also advocated for the creation of leadership positions designated for students of color and students of the queer community.

"This age of bystanders must end," Josiah Rothwell of SAFE told directors in a written statement. "Forty years have passed since our first plea. It is obvious that we have been begging. Our pleas are heard but not listened to. We have a silenced generation of youth who are hurting. You've heard our testimonies. Those who are told 'You're too pretty to be Mexican' and that they should bleach their skin. Even the threats of lynching on the bus that went unpunished. Pay very close attention to my words, because this is far more than just a comment. This is greater than a suggestion for school procedures. We. Are. Suffering. (The Confederate) flag stands for the rape, murder, lynching, abuse and enslavement of people of color. It stands for children growing up knowing none other than the fact that they are, and always will be, property. To be sold. Bought. Raped. And abused. This flag is what Sandy students are wearing through the halls. You are eight adults in charge of shaping the future generations of our community. Protect us."

While Board Chair Randy Carmony said he'd only found fewer than 600 signatures on the SAFE petition, who were "likely our patrons," there was a general consensus by the board that education would be needed and key in combatting any potential racist behavior occurring in Sandy schools.

"I have always felt I wasn't racist. Having said that, I see after the things that I've learned in the last year, that I've possibly said and done things that likely weren't appropriate," Carmony said. He added that he's seen racism exhibited in the construction industry. "My personal opinion on a resolution to stop the racism is education, education, education. Drawing a line in the sand, banning things to me doesn't get to the root of the problem … The education needs to come before the hammer. (They need to) understand why they're being reprimanded for something or don't understand the finite reasons for the racism, and why it's wrong and how it came about … Longterm, we need to look at what we can do to policy, whether it should be in policy or it shouldn't be in policy … I think the hammer is in the policy if we enforce it."

Director Nicole O'Neill noted that "policy is a tool used to combat" racist behavior in schools, but that has to be coupled with education.

She also gave the example of North Bend School District, after having spoken with the district's board chair, as a district in state which successfully banned the Confederate flag in 2017. She said the district had used existing policy to enforce discipline for students found displaying the image of the Confederate flag.

"Policy is not the tool that is going to stop racism," O'Neill said. "However, policy does to signal to everybody what behavior is and isn't acceptable … If we change our policy to ban the Confederate flag and be more specific, that really gives the administration the backing of the board and it really communicates to the administrators and the teaching staff that the board supports them when they create a safe environment for our students."

She also pushed passionately for the board to consider the SAFE leaders' petition and working with them, saying "We don't want to be part of the problem. We want to be part of the solution."

Director Marjan Salveter said she'd welcome input from the Oregon School Board Association to guide the board on how best to "make a very clear message that we will not tolerate racism or the perception or the activity of hate crimes."

"There's no room for hate or racism in our community and in our school district," she added. "I think we can all agree on that. How we move forward and voice that and make that stance clear to our student body and our community is important and I want to be thoughtful about it. I'm a person of color. I can appreciate what I'm hearing the students say, and we need to be active and take an active stance on the matter."

Director Marie Teune agreed that there is no place for racism in the community and also voiced concerns that the board was being blamed by students in their campaign to combat racism at Sandy High. She said reports about the student movement have made it sound like the school has been flying the Confederate flag on its flagpole for years and is "the worst school in the state for racism," and she felt insulted.

"I don't mean to sound too defensive," Teune said. "'We are eight people that could make a change,' and I get that, but at the same time, it's like they're out to get us because it's up to us to do all of this, and I think it takes a community — it takes parents, it takes families, it takes teachers, it takes everyone — it's not just us eight people who are going to make a change. We can certainly get things started. I just don't like the insinuations about the board (that) I've been reading and hearing."

In the end, it was Bayer who assured board members that the intent of the students wasn't to "railroad" them, and suggested he meet with SAFE leaders to draft a resolution similar to that presented by Sandy City Council on July 20, condemning racism.

The board approved and directed Bayer to do so.

"I will vouch for Josiah and Molly in particular as just being outstanding kids," Bayer said. "These aren't kids I think that are trying to railroad a system. I really do believe they have a passion … I really do believe these are kids who want to advance a cause."

"The goal was never for the district to become defensive; rather, we have been hoping from the beginning to work together with them on these issues," Molly Izer, co-organizer of SAFE, said. "We are extremely excited to be able to meet with Superintendent Bayer and discuss resolutions. Regardless of some of the hiccups of (Thursday's) meeting, I am glad that we all agree on one thing: it's time to make a change."

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