Last week, the Eugene 4j school board was set to vote on a few policies, including one to expand the district’s firearms ban to include concealed weapons. The meeting preceded the horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas of 19 children and two adults that has drawn national attention since it occurred Tuesday.
The discussion of gun policy in Eugene was connected to an Oregon law passed last year allowing schools to prohibit concealed weapons on school campuses.
After the public comment period came and went at last week’s meeting on May 18, a group of parents complained to board members that they weren’t allowed to weigh in.
“Can we hear from one of the 20 conservative members of our community that are sitting in the audience tonight?” asked one person in the audience.
“We need to take a recess,” said board chair Judy Newman. The video goes to black as the audio continues. The community members in opposition to the new policy continue to talk, with the board members out of the room.
A member of the remaining group grabbed a microphone and called out the board’s only Black board member, Laural O’Rourke, by name. The parent, who had run against O’Rourke in 2021 and lost, said he was upset about the phrase “white supremacist” being “tossed around” by the board, and specifically O’Rourke.
Another person asked the audience how many of them had concealed handgun licenses, and talked about preventing school shootings with guns.
The board postponed voting on the policy until its June 22 meeting, and said people will be able to comment on the policy then. Newman said community members had to sign up to attend the meeting and sign up for public comment. They may have only signed up to attend the meeting.
“People definitely have a chance to state their opinions and make their case,” Newman said.
Following last week’s disruptions, the Eugene board has approved several safety measures for its meetings and members. Those include moving public meetings online until the board can get security at meetings, especially “contentious” ones, Newman said. The board also agreed on safety assessments at O’Rourke’s home and the district meeting space, and compensating O’Rourke for home security monitoring.
Newman said the Oregon School Boards Association and the Coalition of Oregon School Administrators are releasing a school safety tool kit, and she was able to look at a draft and use a statement from it to read before public comment to prevent members of the public from singling out district personnel. Newman said the board is also planning on safety training for members and in the long-term, a policy related to disruptions.
But before those actions were taken at a Monday meeting, O’Rourke said she spent time looking for a hotel for her and her family’s safety, but couldn’t find a room due to a track meet. She said the district should’ve helped.
“It should’ve been we just provided something for my security,” O’Rourke said during the Monday meeting. She said she wants a system to be set up for future board members.
Board members spoke in support of O’Rourke.
“That’s the level of seriousness of home protection that I think we need to provide to Laural O’Rourke at this point, and I think we need to do it right away…that’s what we owe to any of us who end up in this situation,” said board member Gordon Lafer.
O’Rourke is nearing the one-year mark of her time on the school board. She said the year has been difficult, with tension from the district, staff, and sometimes other board members as O’Rourke has focused on making the school system better for marginalized students and staff.
“It’s about generational poverty, it’s about our Indigenous population, the list keeps growing the longer I’m here of people that just feel completely disenfranchised from the system,” O’Rourke said.
In the wake of the targeted violence against Black Americans in Buffalo, last week’s meeting felt different to her.
“My thought over and over was, ‘the only difference that something horrible didn’t happen, is somebody didn’t decide to make it happen,’” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke said last week’s disruption could have been avoided if the public had a chance to speak to the board.
O’Rourke said she wants to be able to do the work she was elected to do, without a focus on her or her race.
“It’s exhausting, and it’s stupid and exhausting,” O’Rourke said. “...The work I want to do, is to make it so our kids graduate with the means to support themselves.”