Equity and restorative justice bills ask districts to make hard decisions
Sometimes, for good reasons, bills ask hard questions. This session some good reasons have been equity, inclusion and restorative justice. Last week, a bill asked House Judiciary Committee members: To protect students, which crimes should be remembered forever?
The statute ORS 342.143 controls how licenses for Oregon educators and administrators are issued. The statute contains a list of crimes that prohibit a convicted person from being issued a teacher or administrator license. These are sometimes called the “forever crimes” for school districts and can also affect selections for volunteer and committee work.
House Bill 2942 would remove some crimes, almost all of them related to illegal drugs, from that list. Removing those crimes would mean that, after completing all necessary study and credentialing, a person with one of these convictions would be eligible to receive a license and work as a licensed educator or administrator.
Equity for students and employees is a driving force behind the bill.
Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, sponsored the bill. She told OSBA it would allow students to learn from adults who have overcome past mistakes and start conversations about whether districts should consider hiring people with prior convictions.
“The current system creates a lifelong penalty for past mistakes and compounds existing disparities within our communities,” she said. “Right now, people who have these lived experiences are prohibited from being employed, despite their talent, qualifications and valuable perspectives.”
School board members have voiced support.
The goal “is to create a path for folks who could benefit a certain group of youth to be able to work in our schools,” Helen Ying told the Judiciary Committee. Ying is an officer for the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus and Multnomah Education Service District board member. She said it would allow districts to hire people with nonviolent records.
Corvallis School Board Chair Sami Al-AbdRabbuh, an OSBA Board member and president of the caucus, told OSBA that the bill prioritized safety for students while addressing years of systemic inequity against people of color caused by the “war on drugs.”
“This bill supports people who were convicted with nonviolent criminal offenses and served their time,” Al-AbdRabbuh said. “They deserve the chance to serve their community.”
There was testimony against the bill as well.
“Finding great teachers is a national challenge,” Medford School District Assistant Superintendent Debbie Simons wrote to the committee. “Addressing the very real issues of poverty and inequity in our state and nation is a very real challenge. This bill does not serve or address either of those issues.”
The listed crimes were at one time considered terrible, and anyone who committed them was seen as absolutely dangerous to society. A career in schools was unthinkable.
That is no longer the case.
Both in Oregon and nationally, societal understanding of drug use and drug abuse disorders is changing rapidly. With the passage of ballot measures in 2014 and 2020, Oregon is the leader among states in drug-decriminalization policy. The push for drug decriminalization is a recognition that the criminal justice system has removed a disproportionate number of people of color from the school community.
HB 2942 is not alone in asking questions about the schools we want to have. Senate Bill 736 would create a task force on restorative justice. HB 2001 would prioritize diverse teachers in reductions in workforce processes. SB 683 would require instruction in schools on Oregon’s documented racist history.
These bills and others push hard questions. What do we owe each other? What should we do with systems that have hurt people of color? And if there is any merit in Oregonian goals of equity, justice or people “flying on their own wings,” is it important to consider how to change systems that punish individuals for the worst day of their lives, especially when the punished are so often people of color?
“These are people who have shown resilience,” said Parkrose School Board Chair Sonja Mckenzie, OSBA vice president. “These people have gone to school. They have a story. They’re going to have something to share with kids. What better role model for kids than someone who overcame adversity?”
- Richard Donovan
Legislative Services specialist