NEWBERG, Ore. (KOIN) — A teacher with the Newberg School District is planning on suing the district’s board of directors after the board prohibited all political signage, including Black Lives Matter signs or any uses of the Pride flag.
Chelsea Shotts, who is listed as a teacher at Dundee Elementary School, had a tort claim submitted by her lawyers to put the district’s school board and its directors David Brown, Brian Shannon, Trevor DeHart and Renee Powell on notice.
Shotts intends to file claims for money damages, injunctive relief, equitable remedies, and attorney fees for claims included, but not limited to: violations of the First and Fourteenth amendments to the United States Constitution; violations to the Oregon constitution; and violations to Oregon law prohibiting discrimination in education.
Shotts will also seek to recover all costs and attorney fees.
In early October, the notice said Shotts was notified by Dundee Elementary School Principal Reed Langdon that he had received a complaint by Michael G. Gunn regarding a display in Shotts’ room. The display was posted in Shotts’ classroom window and featured a rainbow background and the shape of a heart.
According to emails obtained by KOIN 6 News through a public records request, Langdon received Gunn’s complaint through an email forwarded to the district’s office. The principal told Gunn he followed board policy to evaluate the evidence and render a decision within 10 working days after receiving the complaint.
“In reviewing the evidence on this, I have determined this is not a political, quasi-political, or controversial display,” said Langdon. “It is one that honors students and tells them they are welcome at Dundee Elementary.”
However, Gunn did not agree with Langdon’s decision and forwarded the complaint to former Newberg Superintendent Joe Morelock and the Newberg School Board members, according to the tort claim. The School Board recently fired Morelock from his position.
On Oct. 18, Morelock told Gunn he received his complaint and rendered a decision on Oct. 29.
“I have reviewed your complaint, I spoke with Mr. Langdon, and I also looked at the sign in question in person myself,” noted Morelock.
In the email, Morelock said the words “Be Known” is also George Fox University’s tagline, which is a private Christian university.
The now-ousted superintendent determined that the sign should not be removed for the same reasons Langdon noted in his review.
The complaint and the firing
According to public records, Gunn’s complaint was then forwarded to the school board, which was acknowledged by Brown via email on Nov. 9 and later read at the board meeting that same night.
“This is like the greatest of gray areas for me because, is any rainbow pattern on actually a Pride flag? I don’t think it is,” said Shannon while reviewing the complaint at a school board meeting on Nov. 9. “My daughter wears rainbow pajamas all the time. This is a tough one. I’m not gonna lie.”
Shannon suggested tabling the motion and Brown agreed because it would set precedent for future rulings.
However, school board member Brandy Penner did not agree with the motion to table and requested for the motion to be decided that same night.
“So, if it’s a rainbow this time, then you say, ‘Okay rainbows are no good’ and next time maybe it’s baby pink or baby blue,” she said, in reference to the colors on the transgender flag. “The issue of this is that it will continue to be this process in which we are not able to define anything because they’re literally colors.”
DeHart, Powell, Shannon and Brown later voted to table the motion with Piros, Penner and Peña voting against it.
Later that night, Morelock was fired without cause in a 4-3 vote by the school board.
What led to the notice?
The notice referenced the Newberg School Board passing a directive on Aug. 10, where the board directed now-former Newberg School District Superintendent Joe Morelock to remove Black Lives Matter and Pride symbols on school grounds. The motion passed with Brown, Shannon, DeHart and Powell voting in favor.
On Sept. 1, the topic was up for discussion again during the school board’s virtual meeting, but there weren’t enough votes to rescind the ban. Days later, the board’s policy committee met with Oregon School Boards Association’s Policy Director, Spencer Lewis, to consider the adoption of a sample policy, said the tort claim notice.
According to the document, the policy said that “No district employee shall, while acting within the scope of their employment, either during school hours, or inside their physical area of responsibility at a school… hang, post, erect, or otherwise display… any posters, signs, flags, banners, pictures or other digital or physical images that depicts support or opposition relating to a political, quasi-political, or controversial topic.”
The sample policy in the tort notice defines a political or quasi-political topic to include “contemporary issues being debated in the local, state or national political climate.”
“In discussing the policy’s language, Lewis noted that enforcement may be made ‘difficult’ by the term ‘controversial.’ Superintendent Morelock also noted that the portion of the policy identifying a ‘controversial topic’ as one with ‘students on more than one side of said issue’ could be ‘a challenge for us to enforce,’” noted the notice.
After discussing the language, the committee voted 2-1 – with Shannon and DeHart voting in favor – to refer the policy to the full board for two readings and a vote, according to the notice.
The board then conducted a first reading of the policy, and in late September, the board conducted a second reading and voted 4-3 to both rescind the directive and adopt the policy. Once again, the document stated, Brown, Shannon, DeHart and Powell voted in favor.
KOIN 6 News reached out the Newberg School Board, the individually named school board members and Shotts for comment but did not hear back by deadline.
The Newberg School District’s administration told KOIN 6 News to refer to the school board for comment on this tort claim.