By Andrew Selsky | Associated Press
NEWBERG, Oregon – An Oregon school board has banned educators from displaying symbols of Black Lives Matter and gay pride, sparking a torrent of recriminations and threats to boycott the city and its businesses.
Newberg, a town of 25,000 people 25 miles southwest of Portland in a beautiful wine country, has become an unlikely focal point of a battle between left and right across the country over schooling.
The city council condemned the action of the Newberg school board. The same goes for members of color in the Oregon legislature and the House and Senate Democrats. The Oregon Civil Liberties Union threatens to sue. The Oregon State Board of Education has called on the school board to turn the tide, saying students’ identities should be saluted and affirmed.
But the four conservative members of the seven-member board are jostling their heels. Member Brian Shannon, who proposed the ban, said Portland lawmakers should stay out of school district business and instead focus on Portland, where homelessness is an issue.
Opponents say the council emboldened racists. On September 17, a special education staff member from a Newberg elementary school showed up for work in blackface, claiming she represented anti-segregation icon Rosa Parks in protest against a vaccine mandate statewide for educators. She was immediately put on administrative leave.
That same week, it was learned that some Newberg students had participated in a Snapchat group in which participants pretended to buy and sell black classmates. Newberg Public Schools Superintendent Joe Morelock said an investigation and disciplinary action would be taken.
Highlighting how much board action has cut, raw emotion was on display during a virtual board hearing on Wednesday night. Some speakers said that the action of the board of directors is harmful. Others said the signs had no place in schools, saying they were political.
Local resident Peggy Kilburg said they should be banned from school, along with signs supporting any political position, such as the National Rifle Association posters.
Robert Till, who is gay and a sophomore at Newberg High School, said he was embarrassed living in Newberg. He cited an estimate from the Trevor Project, a group that aims to end suicide among LGBTQ youth, that at least one LGBTQ person between the ages of 13 and 24 tries to kill themselves every 45 seconds in the United States.
âA simple pride flag or BLM in a classroom shows the love and acceptance that we need,â Till said, voice shaking with anger. “Pride flags can literally save someone’s life, and you’re just going to take it off?” “
School board president Dave Brown, who voted to ban the signs, said in a previous Zoom meeting that “I’m not a racist.”
âI work with and will always accept those around me no matter what,â said Brown, an American flag pinned behind him. âI don’t care if they’re gay. I don’t care if they’re white, brown or black. I work with everyone.
Shannon defended the ban, which has yet to be imposed.
âI don’t think any of us can deny that these symbols are divisive,â Shannon said. “They have divided our community and taken our attention away from where it should be, just teaching the basics of education.”
Opponents of the ban say it’s the advice that divides and distracts from challenges as educators begin in-person education with safety protocols after a year of distance education due to COVID-19.
âIt was difficult to see a divided community. You can see the angst on both sides. It makes the job of an educator more difficult than it already was, âsaid a Newberg High School faculty member.
Speaking on the condition that she is not named for fear of being harassed online, she said more students than ever are displaying gay pride and Black Lives Matter symbols on lockers, water bottles and laptops since the council voted in August. The ban does not apply to students.
Alexis Small, a 15-year-old black high school student, believes members who approved the ban just don’t approve of people who aren’t like them.
âThe message I’m feeling is hate,â Small said in a telephone interview. âI mean, I can’t say this decision was made out of love or what’s best for people. I honestly think they did this out of hate.
In June 2020 – as the Black Lives Matter protests rocked the nation after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis – the board took a completely different stand, condemning racism and pledging to be a district anti-racist school. But the Conservatives won a majority in the school board election last May amid low turnout, and everything has changed.
Tai Harden-Moore, a black candidate who lost, remembers an unpleasant election. Social media comments supporting her opponent called Harden-Moore un-American and claimed she hated whites, she said. His campaign signs have been torn from the ground or left in place – with tree branches placed on top.
âMy sign, I have my face on it, and so for them to put the branches on it, it was like this weird connection to the lynching for me,â Harden-Moore said.
Harden-Moore joined a group called Newberg Equity in Education, which advocates for inclusion and equity in Newberg schools.
The Chehalem Valley Chamber of Commerce told the school board it had received numerous phone calls and emails from people saying they would boycott Newberg, the main town in the valley.
âAs business leaders and owners, we are very concerned about the impact this is having on our businesses and on the reputation of our community,â the chamber said, Newberg Graphic newspaper reported.
Newberg Mayor Rick Rogers told the four Tory council members their actions could harm the city, which includes a dozen wine tasting rooms and a Quaker-founded university.
âWhile you may believe that your actions only affect the school district, know that in truth your actions affect us all. To thrive, Newberg must be welcoming to all,â he wrote.