When students in Newberg Public Schools show up for the first day of school next month, they may not see Pride flags, or flags reading “Black Lives Matter.”
The school board voted Tuesday evening, four to three, to enact a ban on those flags, and any broadly “political” signs, clothing and other items, with the board’s three-member policy committee set to outline what constitutes “political.”
This action goes against recent state efforts to highlight support for students, including the Oregon Department of Education’s Black Lives Matter October 2020 resolution and recent efforts to help LGBTQ+ students. Supporters of the flags said they made students feel seen, help students being bullied, while supporters of the board’s vote said the signs were “divisive,” and that signs don’t make people feel safe.
Discussion and votes on two other related topics, drafting “replacement language” on the district’s new anti-racism policy and rescinding the district’s “Every Student Belongs” policy, was pushed to the district’s next board meeting - likely a special meeting later this month. If the board votes to roll back “Every Student Belongs,” the district would be in violation of state standards.
According to board secretary Jenn Nelson, there were over 90 public comments. The school board only heard 31 before ending the public comment portion of the evening.
Board chair Dave Brown said the board received over 500 emails ahead of the meeting. In his report, he said he was not racist, and that the district needs to support “all” students.
“It still goes back to the fact that we have a lot of kids that are impacted by this positively or negatively,” Brown said. “As a school board, it’s our job to make decisions that are going to be there for every single kid at Newberg High School, not just the kids that are represented in just one group - it has to be all kids.”
Board members, including Ines Peña, asked for more student input before moving forward with the motion.
“The quality of some of the stories that we heard should count more than just the number of emails that we received,” Peña said. “And I feel like that’s not being heard, the students are not being heard.”
In the weeks since the board’s last meeting, state legislators have come out asking members of the school board to rethink the focus on banning flags and rolling back policies.
So have staff. Joshua Reid, a Newberg schools counselor, said the district’s 16 counselors signed a letter asking the board to vote “no” on Tuesday’s agenda items. During Tuesday’s board meeting, Reid shared stories he heard from students, including students who had been rejected by their families and a Black student who was verbally and physically harassed and followed home.
“When these students enter our schools, and see the symbols that we mean to communicate love and support and affirmation, they don’t see propaganda or indoctrination or any ideology,” Reid said. “They see a glimmer of hope that there can still be safe places and safe people in their schools.”
Another school staff member, teacher Stacey Dalton, said the LGBTQ+ Pride and Black Lives Matter flags help students see themselves in school when they may not otherwise.
“They are messages of love and support,” Dalton said. “White and or heteronormative students, the majority, see their own validation consistently in the curriculum Newberg School districts have adopted and therefore do not need extra messages of support.”
The school board includes newly elected school board members Trevor DeHart and Renee Powell, both of whom supported the ban on flags and policy changes. Newberg parent Brandon Casey said Tuesday’s agenda items were a direct result of the May 2021 election results.
“We voted for this school board to make sure BLM signs are not in classrooms,” Casey said, before pledging to unenroll his two students from the district if masks are required in schools. Under a state rule, they are required, though board chair Brown said the mask discussion will continue at the next board meeting.
Thursday, the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus Executive Team sent a letter addressed to four of the seven board members, including DeHart and Powell, sharing “growing concern” with the district’s planned actions.
The letter asked the board members to avoid actions “contrary to state and federal law” and consider the impact of the board’s actions on its community, including its students.
“The actions you are considering are sending a message of division and marginalization of students and educators who are part of your community,” according to the letter.
There were more public comments presented in support of the flags and policies, and in favor of postponing decisions on them, than comments in support of the board’s agenda items.
Those comments included one from Newberg student Melody.
“Banning these flags make me feel like I would not feel welcome, or safe, and I do not believe this is the right thing to do,” she said. “As a kid, I think it’s unfair to say kids should not be in this environment.”
Her comment was the only one from a current student shared at Tuesday’s meeting.
Lack of student and staff input
A motion to postpone the action item to allow for more feedback from staff and students failed.
“It being summer, we haven’t heard that much from our student population, and from our staff,” said board member Rebecca Piros. “It doesn’t hurt to keep it in place a little bit longer.”
Late into the board’s discussion, vice chair Brian Shannon created a new amendment to expand the motion to include forthcoming policy language prohibiting the display of political “apparel, buttons, placards and all modes of display,” with exemptions to the policy decided on by the policy committee. After facing questions of who the motion applies to and whether the motion will restrict free speech, Shannon added that this only applies to district staff and faculty while they’re performing their duties.
“The main goal of this is to get political symbols, and divisive symbols out of our schools so we can focus on the already difficult task of educating our students in the core subjects,” Shannon said.
At least one school board member, Peña, was wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt and a rainbow-colored headband. Peña is the only person of color on the board.
Shannon’s late addition led to more comments and questions from a few board members, including what falls - and doesn’t fall - under the motion.
“I’m not wearing a flag, but I do have a rainbow headband,” Peña asked. “What does that mean?”
Shannon said the headband was OK, but not the shirt, under the amendment he created.
Newberg superintendent Joe Morelock said he will check with the district’s lawyers before putting this motion into place.
“I won’t be able to enforce it as it is until we’ve gone through a bunch of legal review,” Morelock said.
Nationally and locally, conversations about equity in education have been ramping up for several months, becoming divisive as conservatives have challenged the movement.
Richard Arnold, a Newberg parent, asked how the conversation started in his district, where he said his daughter, who is transgender, was “mostly accepted by peers and friends.”
“Was there a multitude of students that were talking about being threatened by identifications inside the classroom? Was there a teacher that was pushing their agenda on so many students, that parents were getting complained to?” Arnold asked.
“I mean, where did this all start?”