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School board’s ban on anti-racist, LGBT signs divides Oregon town

By Andrew Selsky | Associated Press

NEWBERG, Oregon — An Oregon school board has banned educators from displaying Black Lives Matter and gay pride symbols, sparking a flurry of accusations and threats to boycott the city and its businesses.

Newberg, a city of 25,000 people 25 miles southwest of Portland in beautiful wine country, has become an unlikely focal point for a battle between the left and right across the country over schooling.

The city council has condemned the action of the Newberg School Board. So were colored members of the Oregon Legislature and House and Senate Democrats. The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon threatens to sue. The Oregon State Board of Education called on the school board to change course and said students’ identities should be welcomed and affirmed.

But the four conservative members of the seven-member board are on their heels. Member Brian Shannon, who proposed the ban, said Portland lawmakers should stay out of school district affairs and focus instead on Portland, where homelessness is a problem.

Opponents say the board has encouraged racists. On September 17, a special education worker at an elementary school in Newberg showed up for blackface work, saying she was portraying anti-segregation icon Rosa Parks to protest a statewide vaccine mandate for educators. She was immediately placed on administrative leave.

Protesters demonstrate Aug. 24 against a new school policy banning Black Lives Matter and Pride flags in the Newberg School District. (Jozie Donaghey/The Oregonian via Associated Press)

That same week, reports emerged that some Newberg students had joined a Snapchat group in which participants pretended to buy and sell black fellow students. Newberg Public Schools Superintendent Joe Morelock said an investigation and disciplinary action will be taken.

To underscore how deep the board’s action has cut, raw emotion was seen during a virtual public hearing of the board Wednesday night. Some speakers said the board’s action is harmful. Others said the signs have no place in schools and said they are political.

Local resident Peggy Kilburg said they should be banned from schools, as well as signs supporting a political position, such as National Rifle Association posters.

Robert Till, who is gay and a sophomore at Newberg High School, said he was ashamed to live in Newberg. He cited an estimate from the Trevor Project, a group that aims to end suicide among LGBTQ youth, that in the US at least one LGBTQ person between the ages of 13 and 24 tries to commit suicide every 45 seconds.

“A simple pride or BLM flag in a classroom shows the love and acceptance we need,” Till said, his voice trembling with anger. “Pride flags can literally save someone’s life, and you’re just going to take that away?”

School board chairman Dave Brown, who voted in favor of the sign ban, stated in a previous Zoom meeting that “I am not a racist.”

“I work with and will always accept the people around me no matter what,” said Brown, an American flag pinned behind him. “I don’t care if they’re gay. I don’t care if they’re white or brown or black. I work with everyone.”

Shannon defended the ban, which has not yet been imposed.

“I don’t think any of us can deny that these symbols are divisive,” Shannon said. “They have divided our community and diverted our attention from where it should be, by teaching only the basics of education.”

Opponents of the ban say it is the administration that is divisive and distracting from the challenges as educators begin in-person instruction with safety protocols after a year of distance learning due to COVID-19.

“It was hard to see a community divided. You can see the fear on both sides. It makes being a teacher even harder than it already was,” said a Newberg High School faculty member.

Provided she isn’t named for fear of being harassed online, she said more students than ever have been displaying gay pride and Black Lives Matter symbols on lockers, water bottles and laptops since the board voted in August. The ban does not apply to students.

Alexis Small, a 15-year-old high school student who is black, believes that the members who approved the ban simply don’t approve of people who are not like them.

“The message I feel is hate,” Small said in a telephone interview. “I 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 Black Lives Matter protests swept the nation after the George Floyd police murder in Minneapolis — the administration took a very different stance, denouncing racism and pledging to be an anti-racist school district. But the Conservatives won a small-turnout majority in the school board election last May, and everything changed.

Beth Woolsey, from left, Tai Haden-Moore and AJ Schwanz are members of a group called Newberg Equity in Education, which advocates for inclusion and equality in schools. (Andrew Selsky/Associated Press)

Tai Harden-Moore, a black candidate who lost, recalls a nasty election. Comments on social media supporting her opponent called Harden-Moore un-American and claimed she hated whites, she said. Her campaign signs were ripped out of the ground or left in place — with tree branches on them.

“My plate, I have my face on it, and so for them to put the branches on it, it was a weird link to lynching for me,” Harden-Moore said.

Harden-Moore has joined a group called Newberg Equity in Education, which advocates for inclusion and equality in Newberg schools.

The Chehalem Valley Chamber of Commerce told the school board it has received numerous calls and emails from people saying they will boycott Newberg, the valley’s main town.