Oregon School Board Adopts Policy Banning Pride, Black Lives Matter Symbols in Classrooms

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Newberg teachers can now be reported for displaying Black Lives Matter or Pride flags in their classrooms.

The school board’s conservative majority on Tuesday voted to approve a controversial policy barring educators from displaying symbols considered “political, quasi-political or controversial.”

The 4-3 vote came hours after district educators rallied in opposition to the ordinance, which has drawn fierce criticism — and national attention — since board vice chair Brian Shannon introduced it in July.

It also follows a pair of racist incidents in district schools.

State lawmakers have come out against the policy and the Chehalem Valley Chamber of Commerce expressed concern the policy may lead potential visitors to boycott Newberg businesses.

The board’s conservative majority argued the banners introduce political distractions into what should be neutral learning environments.

Shannon told The Oregonian/OregonLive in August that Pride banners fall under that category because he’s heard from several Newberg families who don’t “agree with the gender ideology that flag represents.”

Both Shannon and board member Trevor DeHart called the policy “innocuous.”

“We need to be moving back to education,” board Chair Dave Brown said.

Board member Brandy Penner pushed back, saying adopting the policy will only draw further scrutiny and added that “people will become more entrenched.”

She also said doing so might inspire more demonstrations in Newberg that draw extremists to the city — on Sunday, a group of Proud Boys gathered in the Yamhill County community to rally in support of its passage.

Board member Rebecca Piros asked if an educator would be barred from displaying a photo of themselves posing with their same-sex spouse if it drew a complaint.

“If it were blown up and put on the entire side of the classroom, I suppose someone could make that argument,” Shannon said.

Penner and Piros continued to offer hypotheticals and railed against the policy’s implementation.

“We know this policy is a wreck when it comes to putting it into practice,” Penner said.

Superintendent Joe Morelock said the district will have a hard time evenly enforcing the policy across all its schools.

“I think the difficulty is that we have different people in different buildings taking these complaints. The problem is going to be getting consistency over what’s okay and what’s not okay,” Morelock said.

He later mentioned the policy might invite complaints over the wearing of face masks in district schools, adding that the garments are a political lightning rod.

Penner also called on board members Renee Powell and Trevor DeHart, both of whom have remained mum during previous public discussions of the policy, to explain their positions.

“There has been a lot of voting without explanation,” Penner said.

DeHart said he believes the policy merely codifies state law into district policy. Powell bemoaned the divisions evident among the community over the last few months and said that, even though some children belonging to marginalized communities have been bullied, board members should be sympathetic even to those being disciplined in those incidents.

Powell added that she believes pushing to comfort some students may alienate others.

“That’s not fair to the other kids on the other side,” she said. “They’re being marginalized whether you want to see it or not.”

Critics say the ban risks alienating students who are more likely to be bullied and experience mental health crises than their peers.

The Trevor Project found in a 2021 survey that three-fourths of students who identify as LGBTQ experienced discrimination at school. During a Newberg school board meeting set to take public comments Sept. 22, gay and trans teens relayed their experiences to that effect.

They also accused the board of politicizing students’ identities.

“I am not political. I am human,” Newberg Catalyst High School senior Midas Jenkins said.

Students and district educators were unanimous in their opposition to the policy then and in previous meetings. Supporters were typically parents or longtime graduates of Newberg High. One man joined the virtual meeting from McMinnville.

Public testimony was split fairly evenly among the two camps during the meeting. But the Newberg Graphic reported that critics outnumbered supporters 2-to-1 according to records he obtained of the total requests for comment.

The board’s conservative majority has also at times worked to expedite the policy’s development and adoption against the protests of their three dissenting members.

Conservative board members introduced and voted on a resolution to hire Canby attorney Tyler Smith for a “second opinion” on the directive without providing the public with the 24 hours notice required by Oregon law in late August.

In late September, board members introduced the policy for a first read but did not actually read it aloud before advancing it to Tuesday’s session.

Voting as a bloc, the four conservative members also rejected Piros’s suggestion that Morelock appoint a panel of students, teachers, parents and community members to assess the policy and propose alterations over the next six months.

Piros, students and teachers at various points have said few if any educators hung the identity-affirming banners in their classrooms in the first place.

“What is the problem we’re trying to solve?” she said then.

Piros once again proposed gathering that committee, this time adding the panel should include two board members and six faculty members. This time, however, the body would only meet for six weeks.

“It will show that you’re an empathetic and collaborative leader and you can build consensus through this action. It gives us a chance to step aside from this turmoil we’ve been through,” Piros said.

The conservative majority again dismissed the idea. Brown said the process had already been “dragged out.”

“I don’t want to drag this process out five or six more minutes, let alone six weeks,” Shannon said.

The controversy surrounding the policy’s development is emblematic of a wider trend of school boards becoming a flash point for culture wars across Oregon and much of the nation.

The Newberg teacher’s union signaled its intent to sue the school board over the policy, which the conservative majority attempted to address by rewriting it with Smith’s help.

In its earliest iteration, the policy was a draft directive for Morelock to remove the identity-affirming symbols from district schools.

Morelock, citing advice from district lawyers and attorneys from the Oregon School Boards Association, said he would not enact an illegal policy.

The proposed policy now exempts billboards in school offices and buttons or pins affirming educators’ support for their union. It also allows educators to display such symbols if they’re part of a lesson.

Those amendments didn’t stem the tide of criticism.

The Southridge High School girls’ soccer team knelt during the national anthem ahead of its match against Newberg in protest of the proposed policy. The Tigard football team similarly knelt during a proclamation against intolerance before taking on the Newberg Tigers Saturday as fans draped the Black Lives Matter and Pride banners over railings in the stands.

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