A racist tweet including the photo of a student holding a sign with the “n-word” on it was the first message to shock students.
Other messages followed.
One disparaged supporters of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. Another mentioned children of color returning to “the cottonfields.” One of those messages was a hand-written note that senior N’Dea Flye received. She said it was upsetting and embarrassing. She said she didn’t want to show it to her grandmother. But on Thursday she was upset, but composed, when she spoke to television cameras and microphones on the high school sidewalk.
“It was just sad that somebody from my school could ever do such a thing,” Flye said. “I’ve gone here for so long. I’ve been a part of the community. I’m seventeen. This is the first time. It was just so sad.”
The messages grabbed the attention of teachers and principals at the high school this week, too. Flye’s classmate Brody Young said the recent racist messages were hard to ignore, because they were addressed in class and over the school’s intercom system. He said they were re-defining how people viewed his school.
“Even our fifth period teacher brought this up exactly: if someone were to just fall out of the sky and this was their first week in Oregon City High School, and twice now, the principal has had to get on the intercom and had to address these issues,” Young said. “It’s really giving us a bad rep, but just shows the old saying ‘a few bad apples spoil the basket’.”
Young said the majority of students at Oregon City High oppose the racist messages.
Students responded by planning to walk out of the high school Thursday in protest. Rumors spread of coaches threatening to take away playing time for athletes who took part. Suspensions were possible, students heard. Administrators wound up redirecting students into a private meeting inside the school.
Deciding to keep the debate out of the public eye only made the school look worse, in the minds of some parents, students and recent Oregon City graduate, Madilyn Gillam.
“I think it’s horrific,” said Gillam, who skipped class at Portland State University, where she’s a sophomore, to take part in the planned protest.
“I feel like it’s doing a further disservice to the school and its reputation,” said Gillam.
Oregon City School District spokesman Michael Clark said the demonstration inside the school was still led by students.
“The students organized in the courtyard where they peacefully expressed their outrage in a positive manner and demonstrated their commitment to ensuring a safe and respectful learning environment,” Clark said in a written statement.
Organizers estimated about 300 students attended, out of a total enrollment of more than 2,000 students.
Some who took part said there was value to it. Others were less optimistic about the event’s value for the school climate, like junior Brynne Sair.
“There was a lot of people that didn’t go, because they didn’t want to go,” Sair said, as one of several students who met reporters on the high school sidewalk after the private meeting inside. “I don’t think it changed those people’s minds.”
Sair said even students who did take part in the meeting inside had some uncomfortable exchanges with civil rights activists affiliated with Don’t Shoot PDX.
“I had a friend that had an ‘All Lives Matter’ shirt [on] and one of the girls that was [with] ‘Black Lives Matter’ walked up to him and said ‘why do you have that shirt on? You know what the purpose of this is, right?’” Sair said.
Sair said her friend defended his perspective saying, “We all matter.” Sair said the activist handed her friend a flier urging respectful communication.
That discussion resembled another exchange on the sidewalk, when an organizer gently questioned a high schooler about a sign he was holding that read “We Are All The Same.” The activist emphasized the principles of “equality” and “diversity,” rather than uniformity.
At times, students spoke out angrily at the racist messages. Several said they’ve heard racist language and behavior going back years, proliferated by a relatively small number of students. Other students noted that racism isn’t unique to Oregon City — they see it in Portland and lots of other places.
About a dozen students marched up the sidewalk next to Oregon City High School chanting “Hey, hey, hey! This is not ok!” But other than that, the Thursday protest was more of a series of conversations involving students, activist, the media and school officials.
Teressa Raiford and other activists with Don’t Shoot PDX marched behind them in support. Raiford said she disagreed with the school administrators’ decision to interfere with student protest, but she said the discussion inside was productive. She described students speaking candidly about race, and linking arms.
Raiford hoped administrators would follow up with her group and continue to focus students on cultural and racial awareness.