Portland State University in fall 2016

Portland State University in fall 2016

Rob Manning/OPB

Incidents of racism and xenophobia have flared in schools across the country, with apparent ties to the presidential campaign and election of Donald Trump. Oregon schools have been no exception.

In the last 24 hours, two of Portland’s largest educational institutions have publicly sided with undocumented students and families, rather than the incoming Trump Administration.

Hundreds of students chanted and marched on the streets of Portland this week in opposition to Trump’s policy proposals. The anger beneath it all bubbled to the surface when a counterprotester walked up. 

“Fascism is authoritarian and that’s what (Trump) is,” declared one high school–aged girl. 

“How is he authoritarian though?” asked a counterprotester, recording the protest with his cellphone.

“He’s a demagogue!” the girl yelled back, as other students and supporters shouted their criticism of Trump at the counterprotester.

Racial incidents started before Election Day, however.

The Lake Oswego High School newspaper reported on racist suggestions for a senior class prank — mentioning the Ku Klux Klan and use of a swastika. Camryn Leland works on the school paper and is among the high school’s 1 percent African-American student population.  

“It was sent to me by another black student and they said, ‘Wow, can you believe this?’ And my first instinct was ‘Well, we should bring this to light,’” said Leland. “I sent it to my advisor of our newspaper, and we decided to run it on our front page, and that’s how the whole thing started.”

The paper’s front page mentioned the experience of another student at Lake Oswego High, named Paymann Afghan, identified as a sophomore.

“Students yell at him ‘allah akbar,’ even though they don’t really know what it means, but they think it’s funny,” Leland said. “It’s these hurtful, hurtful words that I think students say for shock value, and I don’t think they understand the weight of the words.”

Lake Oswego School District officials have said they don’t believe the views represent students, but sounded alarm at the comments going unchallenged by some students.   

Meanwhile in Silverton, white students taunted Latino classmates. Racist graffiti appeared in Vancouver.  

When Portland students took to the streets on Monday, Cleveland High School Principal Tammy O’Neill stayed at school. She put up a banner that reads “Everyone Is Welcome Here” to reassure anxious students.   

“If there’s ever any language or comments from inside or outside the community that devalues anybody, for any reason, at all,” said O’Neill, “I want them to turn around at Cleveland High School and see a countermessage to that.”

But banners only go so far.

Portland’s largest school district and its largest university went further, clarifying policies aimed at students who fear possible deportation. Portland State University president Wim Wiewel declared PSU a “sanctuary.”

“We will not enforce federal immigration law — as is required by state law,” said Wiewel. “And we will not facilitate immigration enforcement activities, unless legally compelled to do so — and we will not share confidential information, unless required by court order.”  

Wiewel said PSU’s actions are backed by a federal court decision.

“I want to make it very clear: We are not saying we are going to be in defiance of federal law or state law,” Wiewel said. “That would be, I think, entirely inappropriate.”

Portland Public Schools took a similar step at its board meeting Thursday night. Board member Julie Esparza Brown said the board was doing what it could to stand up for not just Latino students, but any students feeling intimidated.  

“We can’t control what happens at the national level,” said Esparza Brown. “But in our own lives, at work, at school, in our communities and across our institutions, we can stand up against any racism, sexism, xenophobia, any form of hatred.”

Board members said they heard mostly support for their stance, though one mentioned being warned against taking “political” actions. There’s case law to support the “sanctuary” policies.

“The resolution that got passed last night was a great step forward, I think the policy could be more aggressive,” said Aliema Bradley, student representative to the school board.  

Another school board member is looking at policies in San Francisco and Los Angeles schools, to see what else Portland could do.