The Newberg school board will likely vote on a policy on Tuesday to ban district employees from displaying any image or symbol that supports or opposes a “political, quasi-political, or controversial topic.” The policy prohibits flags that say Black Lives Matter, or represent pride and support for the LGBTQ community.
Debate over the policy has heightened over the last several weeks, with local, state, and national officials and organizations speaking out against the school board majority that has supported the policy. The union representing Newberg educators plans to hold a rally Tuesday afternoon, demanding that the board rescind the policy.
In the last two weeks, two new racist events attracted even more attention for the mid-size school district southwest of Portland, which serves about 4400 students. First, as reported by the Newberg Graphic, a Newberg High School student was involved in a “slave trade” group message on Snapchat. The district said the incident is being investigated.
Later that week, Mabel Rush Elementary school employee Lauren Pefferle showed up to work in Blackface. Newberg Graphic reporter Ryan Clarke reports that staffer has been fired, but the local and national attention has continued.
The district said it cannot confirm the status of Pefferle’s employment.
“It is our policy not to confirm whether someone works with us or not, and not to confirm the outcome of disciplinary processes. In all these situations we follow our contracts with employees in which the first step is to place on administrative leave while we investigate and pursue any disciplinary action. That action can include termination,” according to a statement from the district.
On Wednesday night, the board listened for two hours while community members, parents, and students shared thoughts on the board’s action.
People critical of the ban connected recent events to the board’s actions.
“Since the school year has started, I have witnessed increased comments of bigotry, a direct response to people feeling emboldened by the recent board policy to voice hateful and hurtful opinions and reflect poor behavior modeled by some members of this board,” said Maddie Kozloff, a counselor at Chehalem Valley Middle School.
In a letter sent on Thursday, the Oregon Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Task Force told the school board that the policy puts students at “heightened risk of experiencing violence and abuse”.
“Identities such as race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation are not political statements — they are simply part of who your students are,” read the letter signed by Michele Roland-Schwartz, the SATF’s executive director, abuse prevention coordinator, and campus coordinator. The letter also includes several pages of resources and research on ways to support students in schools.
Several people spoke in support of the ban, saying school environments should be “neutral”.
“This ban is simply about ensuring a neutral learning environment, so please stop this politically loaded nonsense,” said Peggy Kilburg, who lives in Newberg.
The policy represents a school board shift.
Just last year, in December 2020, the school board was considering a policy now called Every Student Belongs, just a few months after a policy of the same name was adopted by the Oregon Department of Education. The board passed that policy by a vote of 5-1, with Director Brian Shannon voting against, and Director Dave Brown abstaining. Every Student Belongs prohibits symbols of hate, like nooses and Confederate flags, and directs schools to create processes to address bias incidents.
Before the vote, Catalyst High School student Midas shared a public comment, representing a group of Catalyst students. Midas told the board about student experiences in the district — a Black student being called the “N-word”, a trans student addressed with incorrect pronouns, and a Latinx student being told to “go back where [they] came from”. The students supported the policy, then called “All Students Belong”.
“Thank you for your work to ensure that our schools provide a high quality education and are safe for all students,” the Catalyst students wrote. “We believe the ‘All Students Belong’ policy will help and we hope it will be passed.”
Now Brown is the board chair, and Shannon is the vice chair. Backed by Brown and a conservative majority that includes two new board members, Shannon has had the support to push forward the new policy up for a vote on Tuesday.
This past Wednesday, Midas spoke to the board again, expressing frustration with the turn the board has taken.
“When the new school board quickly decide to ban all BLM [Black Lives Matter] and LGBTQ symbols, I felt like you were telling me there was no room for people like me, that my life, because of my identify, is not valued,” the student said.
Every student who spoke during Wednesday’s meeting spoke against the ban. Newberg High’s 2019 valedictorian called the board’s actions “embarrassing”.
Midas said one more thing before thanking the board.
“I am not political, I am human,” Midas said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Lauren Pefferl’s position at Mabel Rush Elementary. She is a district employee and educator.