PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The chair of the Portland Public School board said it wasn’t much of a surprise when rowdy demonstrators who refused to wear masks showed up to a meeting earlier this week.
Dozens of people packed the meeting room where officials were set to discuss a possible COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students 12 and older on Tuesday night. Angry PPS parents shouted at many in attendance who refused to wear masks, effectively shutting down an opportunity for in person testimony.
“This was a really interesting theater,” said Michelle DePass, the chair of the PPS board. “It was expected; it’s not very effective.”
DePass told KOIN 6 News members from two far-right extremist groups — the Proud Boys and People’s Rights — were in attendance.
“These groups are organized and they’re willing to drive, you know, 20 miles or so to get here,” DePass said.
At the Tuesday meeting, several anti-mask/anti-vaccine mandate demonstrators told a KOIN 6 News crew that they had traveled from other cities including Clackamas, Oregon City, Lyons, West Linn and Molalla. They said they’re watching the situation in Portland closely because they believe the rest of the state will follow PPS.
DePass said the board is elected by Portland residents, so members are committed to hearing from Portland parents and students. She added that she’s “long wanted to gather zip code information from people who testify.”
Aggressive demonstrations over controversial issues have transpired at school board meetings across Oregon and across the country.
PPS officials said they’re determined to hear from the people who have legitimate reasons to testify, which is why they chose not to cancel the meeting but rather move it to a virtual session later that evening.
“That was a little blip on our screen. We are going to keep people safe and we’re going to keep getting the work of the district done,” said DePass. “While some people are saying ‘this has been incredibly hard, you know, as a Black woman, this is nothing. I’ve been training for this for a really long time. I am not afraid. And I feel incredibly supported by the community.”
PPS Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said in a statement that some students and staff were “confronted with the use of offensive racist language” at Tuesday’s meeting. Guerrero condemned the use of hate speech and said PPS is offering supportive services to anyone who was impacted.
Guerrero’s full statement:
“Last night, the PPS Board of Education was scheduled to meet in person for their regular meeting. A student vaccine requirement discussion on the agenda drew a large number of attendees, many without a shared concern for the health and safety of our collective community. Some of those attendees entered the PPS building masked, then took their masks off and refused to comply with PPS requests for all attendees to adhere to the statewide mask requirement. After failure to comply, Board Chair Michelle DePass suspended the Board meeting and moved it online shortly thereafter. Even after the board meeting resumed, unmasked attendees remained inside the building.
“We are deeply disappointed that some attendees blatantly disregarded the statewide face covering requirement, creating a public health hazard for Portland’s students, families, staff, members of the media, and board members. This is simply unacceptable. While we welcome a diversity of perspectives to be expressed in a public setting, Chair DePass made the right call in moving the discussion to a virtual setting, given the unwillingness of certain members of the audience to observe required public health requirements. One important value of our district is to promote civil public discourse. And we support our students in continuing to build their engagement as civic leaders.
“Last night our students and staff were also confronted with the use of offensive racist language. Hate speech is not tolerated in our community. This incident is an affront to our core values of racial equity and social justice, respect, honesty and integrity. We value and respect everyone in our school community and understand that our diversity makes us stronger. Everyone is welcome at PPS and everyone belongs. Everyone deserves an environment where we can discuss the issues that impact us and where we can feel safe and secure. Our goal is to cultivate an environment of respect and a sense of belonging. This incident was documented and we followed our protocols to address this. We are offering supportive services to staff impacted by this, and have been engaged in supporting students and staff to navigate civic unrest in our PPS Civic Engagement and Unrest Toolkit.”