Newberg teachers union sues district over BLM, Pride flag ban

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The union claims that the district policy violates state and federal constitution.

Nearly 200 people gathered at the flag pole on First Street on Aug. 24 to protest a recent decision by the Newberg school board and to support the display of Black Lives Matter and Pride flags in the schools. (Pamplin Media Group)

NEWBERG, Ore. (KOIN) — The Newberg Education Association is suing the Newberg School District after the School Board prohibited all political signage, including Black Lives Matter signs or any uses of the Pride flag.

A state lawsuit filed recently against the district and four Newberg School Board members — David Brown, Brian Shannon, Renee Powell and Trever Dehart — states that there were violations of free speech rights, state constitutional rights against arbitrary and unequal treatment and violations of federal constitutional due process and equal protection.

Along with the NEA, Jennifer Schneider, Andrew Gallagher, Katherine Villalobos and Sara Linnertz were named as individual plaintiffs in the suit, where they all demand for a jury trial. Schneider and Gallagher are the president and vice president of the association.

All of the plaintiffs are listed as “teachers or licensed specialists employed by defendant Newberg School District and are members of the association.”

The NEA is a labor organization that represents licensed educators who work for the school district, and according to the lawsuit, there are approximately 291 members of the association bargaining unit.

What led to the suit?

The suit referenced the murder of George Floyd, which was caught on camera in May of last year and led to protests throughout the country. A month after the murder, the school district adopted a resolution saying that the “Newberg School board stands for social justice for our Black and other marginalized communities.”

The Oregon Department of Education also adopted a Black Lives Matter resolution with support from other organizations in October 2020, the suit added.

“As an affiliate of the (Oregon Education Association), plaintiff association also provided its members posters affirming that Black Lives Matter produced by the OEA for use in the classroom,” said the lawsuit.

It also said that the Oregon Department of Education adopted a policy – Every Student Belongs – saying that “all students are entitled to a high-quality educational experience, free from discrimination or harassment based on perceived race, color, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability or national origin.”

According to the lawsuit, ODE’s policy also qualifies employees to the same protections.

“For the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year, members of the Association displayed BLM posters and Pride flags, and/or other paraphernalia without disruption to the education environment,” added the complaint.

New school board members enter picture

It wasn’t until newly elected School Board members Dehart and Powell, the document states, joined Shannon and Brown to form a majority to elect Brown as Chair of the Board and Shannon as vice chair that there began to be an issue.

“Shannon then moved to amend and reopen the discussion of the agenda to ‘add discussions on BLM signs in District facilities, the AntiRacism Resolution, and Policy ACB to tonight’s agenda,’” said the lawsuit. “His motion was tabled because the matters had not been properly noticed under the Public Meetings Law.”

The document added that Brown, Shannon, DeHart and Powell later voted for the superintendent to remove all Black Lives Matter signage and Pride flags from district facilities.

The move also prompted for a policy to be drafted prohibiting the display, “with the sole exception of the American flag and the Oregon state flag,” according to the suit.

NEA later filed a tort claims notice letter to Brown and the district’s superintendent outlining legal concerns regarding the directive and requesting that the School Board revoke it.

After weeks of back-and-forth meetings, the complaint said three district School Board members called to rescind the directive.

“One district board member moved to refer the issue to a district superintendent standing committee to allow participation by staff and students in the creation of a policy that met their needs and concerns. Defendants Brown, Shannon, DeHart, and Powell voted against this motion,” the document said.

The Oregon State Board of Education also called on the district to reverse course on the directive. Later, Brown, Shannon, DeHart and Powell voted to adopt the policy.

“The restrictions imposed upon the association and its members, including the individual plaintiffs under the policy, are discriminatory and based on the content of their speech as ‘political,’ ‘quasi-political,’ or ‘controversial,’” said the lawsuit. “The district superintendent and board members in the minority acknowledged the lack of clarity of these terms and the difficulty they pose for purposes of enforcement by the administration.”

Where things are now

The lawsuit lists five claims of relief, including rights of free speech and free association as guaranteed by the First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment due process and equal protection.

As for remedies, the association and individual plaintiffs request a declaration that the district policy violates state and federal constitutions.

They also request an order “enjoining defendants from promulgating or enforcing unconstitutional directives or polices that prohibit members from ‘hang[ing], post[ing], erect[ing], or otherwise display[ing] any posters, signs, flags, banners, pictures or other digital or physical image that depicts support or opposition relating to a political, quasi-political, or controversial topic.’”

The last two requests ask for costs associated with attorney fees and any other relief the court deems proper.

KOIN 6 News reached out to the Newberg School District for comment. Gregg Koskela, a spokesperson for the district, said Newberg Public Schools does not comment on pending litigation.

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