‘Embarrassing’: Newberg board gets earful over symbols ban

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The district is dealing with several issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks

NEWBERG, Ore. (KOIN) — In the midst of yet another week shrouded by racially and politically charged tensions, the Newberg School District’s Board of Directors held a special board meeting Wednesday night.

More than 100 people signed up to share their opinion about an upcoming vote that could rescind a ban on political symbols on school grounds — Black Lives Matter and Pride symbols, flags or t-shirts.

The ban was put in place in August when the board approved it, 4-3. The Newberg mayor and city council publicly admonished the board’s decision and the ACLU demanded a retraction of the ban saying it violates both the constitution of both Oregon and the United States.

The Newberg teachers union also notified the board of its intent to sue the district.

The board will vote on the motion to rescind the ban next Tuesday, September 28. But in this listening session, the public comment was spirited.

“This is embarrassing. In student government I heard and witnessed the suffering of a lot of students, the mental anguish, the suicides. Never once did a student come with concern for their free speech, never once did a student come with concern that a BLM or Pride flag was a distraction to their learning,” one person said.

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

Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla told KOIN 6 News the ban is harmful to students and drives a wedge in the community.

“From my perspective as an elected official we need to support students, their families, and teachers in getting a high-quality free public education,” Kulla said. “And then we need to stand up for what’s right to make sure racism and homophobia don’t happen in our community.”

Newberg School Board member Brandy Penner, September 22, 2021 (KOIN)

KOIN 6 News reached out to every board member before this listening session and only Brandy Penner responded. The rule doesn’t prepare students for the reality of life outside of Newberg, Penner said, and it’s emotionally harmful to many students.

“We have students and staff and parents reaching out and basically pleading at this point saying ‘Please, I need these symbols. This is what got me through, I need to know I’m safe,’ she said. “I mean it’s every time I sit down to open up my email it is gut wrenching. People are pouring out their hearts.”

Other recent issues Newberg is facing

The district is dealing with several issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks — the most recent involving Blackface. Mabel Rush Elementary School staff member Lauren Pefferle reportedly showed up to work in Blackface on Friday, saying she was dressed as Rosa Parks and protesting the school district’s vaccine mandate. She was placed on administrative leave, according to a district statement.

Before the Blackface incident, Newberg High School students were discovered to be participating in a racist “slave trade” on Snapchat. That came after the school board began discussing a controversial ban of any Black Lives Matter or Pride displays.

Now, the district is forced to navigate the rocky waters of national attention.

Oregon House and Senate Democrats released a statement in response to the racist incidents on Wednesday morning. The statement calls on the school board to “change course.”

“Blackface is not about putting on a costume, it is racist, anti-Black, and evokes a deeply racist and painful history of othering and denigrating Black communities. This harmful and irresponsible behavior has no place in Newberg or anywhere. Newberg’s BIPOC students, staff, and families deserve better than this,” the statement read. “This deeply traumatizing incident and the “slave trade” Snapchat group that Newberg High School students participated in are further examples of the pervasive racism and discrimination in the Newberg community and the state of Oregon as a whole. At a time like this, leaders from all corners of the community and state must come together to condemn this behavior and prioritize student safety and wellbeing. We hold the students, families, and staff of the Newberg School District in our hearts today. 

“Once again, we call on the Newberg School Board to change course. We urge the School Board majority to rescind the ban on Black Lives Matter signs and Pride flags and back down from repealing the Every Student Belongs Act. Anti-racist and equity practices should start from the top. The Newberg School Board must prioritize creating a safe, affirming learning environment for all students and employees.” 

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