Lake Oswego students suspended after 'racial incident'

LAKE OSWEGO, Ore. (LAKE OSWEGO REVIEW) --- Lake Oswego School District officials are responding this week to what they describe as a "racial incident" that occurred last Friday at Lake Oswego Junior High School.

Several sources told The Review on Tuesday that a Post-it note containing the words "n****r dog" was passed to an African American student during class, and that three students are being punished for the incident. The student who passed the note received a one-day-suspension, while two other students were given in-school suspensions.

Jennifer Cook, the victim's mother, posted her displeasure with the punishment on her personal Facebook page and met with the media Tuesday morning at the entrance to LOJ on Country Club Road. "A one-day suspension is completely inadequate for a hate crime," Cook said, adding that she had checked with her child Friday to make sure he was OK.

"He said he's angry but that he hears that word anywhere from 5-20 times A DAY" at the school, she said. "This is unacceptable. Obviously."

Cook's Facebook post was subsequently shared more than 900 times.

In a statement released Tuesday morning, district officials said they "responded immediately with consequences for the students," and added that administrative staff were working with all of the students involved in the incident using restorative justice strategies.

"We use a restorative justice approach to healing incidents like this," said Christine Moses, the district's executive director of communications. "That means that the offenders need to restore their relationship with the victim, and in the process, the entire student body needs to be engaged in this work."

Moses declined to comment further about the incident, but she did tell The Review that Willie Poinsette, one of the co-founders of the grassroots group Respond to Racism, attended a meeting with LOJ Principal Sarah Deboy and others at LOJ on Tuesday morning.

Poinsette confirmed the meeting, as well as the specific details of the racially charged incident. She said she went to LOJ both as a representative of Respond to Racism and as a former Portland principal "to support the parents, the child who has been victimized and the principal."

"I don't think the community as a whole understands the idea of 'restorative justice,'" Poinsette said. "They probably think nothing has been done."

She said Cook did not attend the meeting, but Poinsette and Moses walked down to the school entrance afterwards, while the victim's mother was addressing the media.

"I talked to the mom," Poinsette said. "She wants punitive action. She wants the boys punished. But I explained that school districts are moving away from that. I talked about restorative justice, and the need for everyone involved to learn from this."

That said, Poinsette said she left the meeting with school officials with unanswered questions and concerns. Specifically, she said she'd like to know more about the training being implemented by the district to create a more inclusive environment in schools. "I'm not clear that it's as systemic as it sounds," she said.

"I really want to know more about the training," she said, "and how much has filtered down from the central office to the classroom."

In a statement issued Tuesday, Moses said the Lake Oswego School Board's recently adopted strategic plan "ensures that diversity is celebrated, equity is created and inclusion happens in every classroom and program in our district. The National Equity Project, along with Coaching Peace, Anthony Muhammad and other organizations have been working with our staff for the last four years."

The strategic plan, along with the district's "all means all" motto, were developed in the aftermath of several hate-filled incidents at LOSD schools in recent years, including racist messages scrawled on bathroom walls and an anti-Semitic poster posted in the Lake Oswego High cafeteria.

"Typically," the statement said, "our schools have an equity team made up of students and parents who continue the dialog in order to lead our diversity, equity and inclusions initiatives."

Deboy, the LOJ principal, responded to the incident in her online blog that focused on the power of words.

"It is important that we begin to teach children that offense language is often also oppressive language, and by using it, we continue the practice of prejudice. I have found that when these words are used, the students have a hard time explaining their intent – they may claim it was meant as a joke, they did not connect the word to the meaning, etc. I believe them. That is why it is on all of us as the adults in their lives to help them understand how we cannot allow these words to be part of jokes or allow them to be thrown around as if they had no meaning. These words have power."

For her part, the victim's mother said she remains unconvinced.

"I had no idea that I was sending my child off every day to have his self-worth and identity chipped away one hateful word or action at a time," Cook posted to Facebook. "And what's worse is that even when made aware of it, the officials at his school aren't protecting him. Would you feel safe if that was your reality? Would you feel valued and secure?"

The Lake Oswego Review is a KOIN media partner. 

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