UPDATE (Wednesday, June 24 at 11:15 a.m. PT) — The Salem-Keizer school board met Tuesday night to pass a budget. But the meeting became more about the district's use of school resource officers and the behavior of two board members.
In light of protests against police brutality nationwide and conversations about police officers in schools, students and community members are calling for the removal of police from schools in one of Oregon’s largest school districts.
More than 181 public comments were submitted to the district for the meeting. Some were messages in support of keeping officers in schools. Others called on two board members to resign, including board chair Marty Heyen. Students and community members said her posts on social media show opinions harmful for the district’s students of color, who make up more than half of the student population.
Salem-Keizer superintendent Christy Perry spoke out too, calling out the board for not listening to students when they’d previously shared their experiences with police in schools.
“Through that process, you white-centered the process and systematically discounted the very real experiences of our students of color even when a black man with a doctoral degree attempted to tell you it was true,” Perry said.
Perry said the board has barely engaged in bias training, and hasn’t shown support for other student groups in the past.
“It's been prevalent, from wanting to rewrite the equity lens to failing to stand up for our transgender students when a small portion of our community wasn't ready to recognize Transgender Day of Visibility,” Perry said. “Even reading the Pride Month Proclamation becomes a hot-button issue.”
Perry asked every board member to commit to anti-racism as a guiding principle for their work in the district.
At the beginning of the meeting, Heyen spoke about the “pain” she’s been experiencing the last couple of weeks.
“I have stepped up and chose to be present in our community to work towards building and offering all of our youth a well-rounded education,” Heyen said. “I have been lumped into extremist groups due to not saying the right thing, reacting in the right way, or in some cases, being silent. I am far from perfect – but I am here, I am serving, and I am willing to listen, to learn, and to grow."
A petition circulated by Salem student group Latinos Unidos Siempre asks the district to remove police from school and also calls for the removal of school board members for recent actions.
At a meeting in March, board member Paul Kyllo covered his face with the mask of a Black retired Portland Trail Blazers player at the March board meeting – and kept it covering his face throughout an hour and a half-long session. Other board members laughed at him – no one asked him to remove the mask.
In a note published on the Salem Statesman-Journal website, he said he did it to protest a board action.
"I apologize that my choice offended anyone, and sincerely regret any discomfort my action may have caused," he wrote in the "Letters to the Editor" dated April 10. "I apologize for my insensitivity and promise to make no such mistake again."
The Salem NAACP spoke out about the incident, calling Kyllo's actions "insensitive, unprofessional, and disrespectful."
The petition also asks for the removal of school board members aligned with white supremacy groups.
"This is the same board that must decide whether funds that place School Resource Officers should be divested to reinvest in the education and lives of Black and Brown students," wrote Latinos Unidos Siempre in a Facebook post. "How can we trust them to make an unbiased decision?"
The conversation around school resources officers has been revived nationally due to the protests. Portland Public Schools, David Douglas School District and Parkrose — all districts within Portland — will no longer have officers on campus.
The question of removing what are called "school resource officers" has been debated in other Oregon districts, including Eugene 4J. Board members there voted to phase out the officers in upcoming plans.
Similar to Salem-Keizer, there is a petition circulating to remove officers in Beaverton schools. The school board vice chair Eric Simpson said there were 32 public comments submitted related to school resource officers at a board meeting earlier this month — 12 in favor of keeping the officers, 20 in favor of reallocating the resources that go to funding the officers.
Salem-Keizer administrators have been meeting with students and community members about the presence of officers in schools.
The board said they will spend the summer soliciting community feedback about school resource officers before making a decision on whether to continue having them in schools.
Moving forward, Perry, the superintendent, said she’d advocate for board member Sheronne Blasi to become the new board chair. According to the Salem Reporter, Blasi has called for Heyen to resign.
During Tuesday’s board meeting, Blasi said the individual actions of board members has distracted from the work the group is trying to do.
“She [the superintendent] needs us to be a better board and be a collective board and to focus on the issues at hand,” Blasi said. “The community is asking us to be a better board…and not focus on the individual.”