State Board of Education blasts Newberg School Board members for proposed symbols ban
In a highly unusual direct shot, the Oregon State Board of Education called out Newberg School Board members Thursday for plans to ban Black Lives Matter and Pride symbols.
“To say that I’m appalled is not enough,” said state board Vice Chair Guadalupe Martinez Zapata, a Newberg resident. “I’m sickened with the moral and ethical disregard and the conviction to racism and exclusion that certain board members from my own community continue to confirm and promote.”
The state board and the Legislature have required schools to pass policies promoting equity and opposing racism. Flying in the face of that, a newly elected conservative Newberg majority has proposed a policy to ban Pride flags, Black Lives Matter symbols and any other “political, quasi-political or controversial” clothing, banners or other signs.
After scorching and emotional testimony about the pain the Newberg board is causing students, the state board passed a resolution requesting all school districts affirm “Black Lives Matter” and create safe spaces for issues of race, equity and gender and sexual identities.
The resolution targeted Newberg specifically, calling on the board to reverse course and “to encourage district staff to celebrate and stand in solidarity with students through the use of signs, flags, placards and symbols, and affirm in words, policy and action that Every Student Belongs.”
OSBA Executive Director Jim Green, who has worked in Oregon education since 1991, said he could not recall such a direct reprimand of a school board by the state board.
He pointed out that the state board is a duly appointed regulatory body and it just put Newberg on notice the state is watching. He said other school boards should also be paying attention.
“This is a message to others: Be careful of your actions,” he said. “You should be adopting policies that are inclusive, not restrictive, in nature.”
Newberg board Chair Dave Brown had not heard about the resolution yet when reached Thursday but said he was not surprised by it. He emphasized that the members supporting the proposed ban care about all students and were reflecting community views.
“We have voted this way because there are a lot of people who want to see our schools just about education,” he said.
He said the division on the board was a microcosm of the divisions in the community and the country.
Fights over political ideologies are poisoning school board meetings around the country. In Oregon, school board members are bumping against state laws as they resist COVID-19 and anti-racism requirements.
Just last week, OSBA sent a letter to members reminding them of their oath of office to uphold the law.
Newberg School Board member Brandy Penner tearfully thanked the state board for taking action “to unquestionably put out there that it is the students that we support and students that we are going to serve.”
Penner is the school board adviser to the state board. Penner, an OSBA Board member, is part of the Newberg board’s minority opposing the new policy.
“It’s difficult to see the ugly side and the hate and the vitriol and the inability to empathize with others’ experiences,” she said.
On Tuesday, the Newberg board tabled its proposed policy while its legality continues to be challenged.
In September 2020, the State Board of Education required every school board to pass a policy by Jan. 1, 2021, that prohibited hate symbols in school and affirmed an education environment free of discrimination or harassment. They must also establish a procedure for addressing bias incidents.
The “All Students Belong” administrative rule was later redubbed “Every Student Belongs.”
In May, the Legislature passed House Bill 2697 with the same intent but some small differences in language. The bill differs in describing “symbols of hate,” and it also requires a procedure to address those symbols in school.
At the time the bill passed, more than 85% of school districts had passed a policy, according to the Oregon Department of Education. Districts will need to adopt a version that meets the Legislature’s standards by Jan. 1, 2022.
“Practically, I don’t think they are big changes,” said OSBA Policy Services Director Spencer Lewis. “But board members need to know they will need to adopt a new version of this.”
On Thursday, the state board considered an update to the Every Student Belongs rule to align it better with the Legislature’s statute, making it easier for districts to comply with both.
OSBA will be offering a sample policy for districts once the state board approves its update.
ODE can withhold funding from districts they find not in compliance. Normally districts report themselves if they are not in compliance with something like this, which is known as a Division 22 standard. It is almost unheard of for districts to face financial penalties before coming into compliance.
But a spokesperson said ODE will be checking with districts to make sure they have passed a policy and ODE could initiate the Division 22 process for districts that refuse.
- Jake Arnold, OSBA