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Oregon school board bans Pride and Black Lives Matter symbols in the classroom

Matt Ogle holds a Pride flag with the clenched fist symbol used in the Black Lives Matter movement as he protests an Oregon school board's ban on images that may be political or controversial. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

An Oregon school board on Tuesday voted to ban educators from displaying Pride flags, Black Lives Matter symbols or other emblems in the classroom that are considered “political, quasi-political or controversial,” despite pushback from teachers, lawmakers and residents.

The conservative majority on the school board in Newberg voted 4 to 3 to adopt a policy that has attracted national attention, criticism and protests in the weeks since it was introduced. The decision in suburban Portland follows a pair of recent racist incidents at Newberg Public Schools. In one of them, a staff member showed up for work in blackface in an apparent protest of the district’s coronavirus vaccine mandate for employees and was subsequently fired.

The policy initially explicitly banned Pride and BLM symbols in all district buildings, but it was amended to broaden the language following a public outcry and concerns surrounding potential litigation. The ban on displaying such symbols in the classroom has been condemned by the Newberg City Council and Oregon Democrats, and the Oregon State Board of Education has called on the school board to reverse course.

Brian Shannon, the Newberg School Board’s vice chairman, introduced the measure over the summer. He said in the Tuesday evening meeting that the policy championed and adopted by him and his conservative colleagues is “very straightforward” and “shouldn’t be controversial.”

“We don’t pay our teachers to push their political views on our students. That’s not their place,” Shannon said. “Their place is to teach the approved curriculum, and that’s all this policy does, is ensure that’s happening in our schools.”

The policy was denounced by the board’s three liberal members, who accused the conservative majority of passing a measure that the community does not want.

“I think the point of this is to show that you are trying to sow division with extremist views and you have no interest in listening to the community,” school board member Brandy Penner said in the meeting.

Neither the school board nor Newberg Public Schools Superintendent Joe Morelock immediately responded to requests for comment early Wednesday. The Newberg Education Association, a union representing 280 educators and staff in the district, wrote in a statement that it is “extremely disappointed” over the decision from the conservative majority.

“It’s clear their personal politics are stronger than any real desire to come together as a school community,” the group said on Facebook. “We cannot let this group of 4 impose their own political agenda, erode our rights, and strip our support of our students. Our educators are united in their goal to create classrooms where students can walk in and feel like they belong.”

The board’s decision comes at a time when Newberg, a city of 25,000 in Oregon’s wine country, has been embroiled in state and national culture wars over free speech, racism and vaccinations.

A staff member at Mabel Rush Elementary School, identified as Lauren Pefferle, showed up to work this month dressed as Rosa Parks with her face darkened with dye to protest a vaccination mandate for all public school employees in Oregon. Gov. Kate Brown (D) announced last month that all teachers, staff and volunteers in the state’s public schools had to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18. Pefferle was fired over the blackface incident, according to the Newberg Graphic.

Oregon school worker suspended for showing up in blackface in apparent protest of vaccine mandate

At least one student at Newberg High School has been linked to a Snapchat group called “Slave Trade,” the Graphic reported, where teenagers nationwide share racist, homophobic and violent messages. The Snapchat group sometimes specifically targets Black students.

Shannon introduced in July the explicit ban in the classroom of political signs and flags, such as those with Pride and BLM symbols. The school board initially voted on Aug. 10 to ban those specific symbols in the classroom. Shannon told the Oregonian that Pride flags and banners were to be included in the ban due to conversations he said he has had with a few Newberg families who don’t “agree with the gender ideology that flag represents.”

The initial vote drew immediate backlash from community members, sparking peaceful protests from the LGBTQ and Black communities. The news got the attention of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who visited with Newberg advocates while she was on vacation.

The community blowback led the Newberg School Board to alter the language of the ban on Sept. 1, removing the specific mentions of Pride and BLM.

Opponents of the ban, who have said the language specifically targeting groups of people was “illegal,” say the policy has helped embolden racists. At a demonstration Sunday, BLM supporters protesting the school board’s policy clashed with some members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group that has endorsed violence, according to the Portland Tribune.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Penner indicated she is disgusted over a vote that she suggested had already been decided weeks earlier by the conservative majority.

“This is not a functioning business meeting,” Penner said. “This is an after-party of four members, so I say let’s just vote — get it over with.” She added, “It’s going to be our community, staff and students who are left to fight this.”

Renee Powell, one of the conservative members on the school board, said that the policy would improve the lives of students.

“We are just destroying one another,” Powell said. “We are supposed to be here for all children and to make all children feel safe and welcome, and by lifting one group or several groups over another, that’s not welcoming and safe.”

But critics remain upset about what the adopted policy will mean for the school district. Robert Till, who is gay and a sophomore at Newberg High School, told the Associated Press that he is embarrassed to live in the city because of the ban.

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

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