Earlier this fall, at Robert Gray Middle School, a white student made a threat against the school’s black students. Parents said school communication afterward was at times vague and incomplete. According to emails sent to families after the incident, then-Principal Beth Madison focused mostly on tamping down rumors.

“These rumors … cause unnecessary concern and even panic at our school in a week when we are trying to focus our attention on healing,” reads one email obtained by OPB. “There is no truth to what you have heard.”

Parents expressed concern with how the incident was handled, and how students were supported. Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, wrote a letter to Madison asking for future communication to focus more on helping families with children of color.

Robert Gray is on Portland’s southwest side, and it’s one of the district’s less diverse schools. Black students make up 2% of the population, with Asian students at 3%, Hispanic students at 9%, and multiracial students at 13%.

At a tense meeting in October, school administrators shared their building’s new racial equity plan, which includes student lessons on topics like micro-aggressions and hate speech. But the meeting soon boiled over into parent questions and frustration about the September incident, over how students were informed of the threat, and how they were protected. And then a student came forward with another story – there had been a “game” on the playground where students pretended to sell black students into slavery.

The parents responded with anger and shock. The meeting ended with administrators promising to protect students, and the PTA announcing a meeting on the topic in January.

“What’s clear to me is that there’s an immediate need to continue to address this issue in our community now, and in our classrooms now,” said Robert Gray Assistant Principal Jeff Waters in October.

That was two months ago. Now Robert Gray has a new interim principal, Molly Chun, who comes from Boise Eliot/Humboldt – an elementary school in North Portland with a far larger proportion of students of color. She replaces Beth Madison, who now has a role in the district office.

And apart from her role as the school principal, Chun is a part of Portland Public Schools’ larger effort to deal with inequity and racism.

PPS Launches Pilot To Improve Equity Work

PPS has contracted with the Center for Equity and Inclusion for a one-year contract to pilot professional development. Under the contract, over 300 PPS staff, including Chun, will participate in one-day trainings with CEI followed by four half-day follow-up sessions, by next June. At least 10 cohorts will receive training through this pilot.

The district is collaborating with CEI on what staffers will learn. Targets include learning the history and issues of racial and ethnic groups in Portland, as well as the ability to analyze personal relationships to power, privilege, and oppression in education.

Most of the staffers receiving training are in the central district office, with the exception of teacher mentors, high school leaders, and possibly staff at at least one PPS school, Vernon.

Early next year, Ledezma said the district will start to figure out how to scale the training to reach every PPS employee.

“We want to sort of start to have some focus groups where we’re not only talking about the content, but also thinking about what’s the ideal learning communities,” Ledezma said.

At the same time, the district is working on how to respond to hate incidents. At a summer institute for principals, PPS shared outside resources, including Western States Center’s Confronting White Nationalism in Schools. The district has also developed protocols for how to respond to symbols or words that show up physically in a school building.

But there are still some things the district wants to clarify for school administrators, like how to assess a threat, or how to determine when a threat becomes “racialized,” according to Ledezma.

“I think our work is really to disrupt all the places where we find institutional racism to eliminate disparities and to build something new,” Ledezma said.

Ledezma said the district could do a better job at communicating equity efforts. But PPS’ equity department looks different these days – and Ledezma said it’s hard for people to understand that PPS’ equity department is not a department anymore. Ledezma said it’s the district’s goal for racial equity to be a part of everyone’s work.

“I think the superintendent’s vision for racial equity is that it’s not under or below or over there, over here, but really sort of integrated and woven throughout every fiber of the district,” Ledezma said.

Parents Push For Fast Action, District Prioritizing System Change

But whatever bureaucratic structure is used for improving equity in Oregon’s largest school district, the conflicts and misunderstandings play out in classrooms and playgrounds at individual schools – and there’s still work to do. Robert Gray parent LaShada DiCosmo said she hasn’t been impressed with the district’s efforts so far. Her family is new to Portland, but she’s heard about the district’s previous office of equity. She’s looked at the district’s racial equity and social justice plan – but for her, it wasn’t clear.

“There was still a lot of things that hadn’t been figured out,” DiCosmo said. “And what I’m finding even at the Robert Gray level is because they don’t have much direction from the district, they are trying to figure it out because they have parents like us that are pushing them to figure it out.”

With incidents like the ones at Robert Gray, Ledezma understands families want justice – but she said it’s also about being strategic.

“We should try to move swiftly to resolve those incidents,” Ledezma said. “But the resolution of those incidents doesn’t do anything to address the deeper, sort of more institutional issues that we have as a system.”

And in a system as large as PPS, change takes time, even as individual incidents continue.

“We have a lot of urgency around wanting to sort of see results, see action, take action,” Ledezma said. “At the same time, we have to do it in a coherent way, in a way that sustains, that’s not personality-driven or sort of site-specific, but something that is sort of woven throughout everything in the district.”

At Robert Gray, families are moving forward.

In December, Chun and Assistant Principal Jeff Waters met with parents again. The meeting was just as emotional as that October meeting, but there was a sense of action among families and staff. Questions about the initial September incident remained.

Waters and Chun acknowledged communication issues in the past, but they also updated parents on how the school is moving forward. The school is holding grade-level assemblies, so students of color aren’t singled out in classrooms. Waters said the school wants to bring more student voice into this work.

Counseling is now a bigger part of conversations around race and equity. And administrators want more professional development for staff on issues of equity.

Robert Gray parents are organizing and connecting with parents at other west side schools. And the school PTA pitched in to help supply teachers with copies of “White Fragility” to read.

“We are going to do this together,” Chun said.

Editor’s Note: OPB has a contract with the Center for Equity and Inclusion.