Superintendent calls out Salem-Keizer board over ‘black face mask’

2020 Protests

Board member held up a cutout of Trail Blazers player Cliff Robinson during March 30, 2020 meeting

Editor’s note: KOIN 6 News has removed all mention of the term “blackface,” which Merrian-Webster defines as “dark makeup worn (as by a performer in a minstrel show) in a caricature of the appearance of a Black person.” We have also included Paul Kyllo’s dialogue from the March 30th Zoom meeting.

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Christy Perry, the superintendent of the Salem-Keizer School District, unloaded on the 7-member school board over their racist actions and inactions because she “cannot sit quietly any longer.”

Perry, who in a lengthy statement described herself “as a cis gendered white female” who acknowledges “that I have all kinds of privilege,” took the entire school board to task.

“We have provided opportunities to help understand our own biases,” she said in the statement. “Our board members barely engage in the training. We have instances of social media display of white supremacy, a black face mask and mockery over that mask. All actions I can’t defend.”

Salem-Keizer School Board member Paul Kyllo. In the center, his official photo. On either side, screenshots taken of him during a board meeting on March 30, 2020 (Salem-Keizer photos)

The mask Perry refers to was held up during a 97-minute school board meeting via Zoom on March 30, 2020. In that meeting, board member Paul Kyllo holds up a cardboard cutout of Trail Blazer player Cliff Robinson’s face for nearly the entire time.

Kyllo addresses the group while holding up the cutout, asking, “How will we verify that someone was actually at the meeting and not hiding behind a mask or two and is actually someone else? I could be calling in and no one would ever know.”

Salem-Keizer School Board member Paul Kyllo (top row, 2nd from left) in a virtual board meeting on March 30, 2020 (Salem Keizer YouTube channel)

Another person in the meeting then asks him why he chooses to cover his face if he is concerned.

“I am making the point that you all don’t actually know if I’m actually sitting here,” Kyllo responds. “And so how would the public or anyone else ever know [garble] actually at the meeting or not? Because we can sit behind a mask or just not illuminate our screens — turn off our video.”

When he put the mask down, Kyllo is seen with a black-colored face covering.

Salem Keizer School Board Special Virtual Meeting – March 30, 2020

“On behalf of our 42,000 students and over 5,000 staff members, I must stand up. If I can’t do this and speak truth to power, how can I expect it of everyone else in our organization?” Perry said.

“Over the past week, I’ve been asked why I sit quietly. Parents are texting my staff asking why I don’t stand up for them in the Board room. I find myself quietly explaining why a seven-member board who is elected by the people is in charge of my employment. Over the past week, as we’ve met with students from our district who have experienced real traumas in our classrooms because of racism, I’ve shared that my ability to keep the equity work moving means I must keep the real issues out of the Board room. That goes against the very principles that I’ve been sharing with my staff – I am not being actively antiracist. Instead, I tell my team that we are going to show up the next day after a Board meeting to do what we’re here for – the right things for kids. Tonight, the right thing for our students is to use my position of power to do what’s right for all of our kids – our transgender students, our Black students, our queer students, our Latinx students, our Indigenous students, our students with disabilities, our Micronesian students, our immigrant students and every other child that comes through our doors.”

Perry, who has been the superintendent since 2014, listed ongoing day-to-day issues, such as School Resource Officers, and noted the board wants to keep that decision to themselves. But she promised to speak up for all students in the district over their thoughts about SROs.

Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry, as seen on the school district website, June 23, 2020

“I am so committed to this, that I will only continue to do this work if I can have will and the strength to do this even if it means calling you out,” she said.

She also said she “will denounce Board member affiliations to groups that are considered hate groups, organizations that are discriminatory or have a specific agenda that perpetuates systemic racism.”

KOIN 6 News reached out to both Christy Perry and Paul Kyllo for comment.

Kyllo told KOIN 6 News, “No comment. The choice of that mask was unfortunate. The mask had nothing to do with the point I was making.”

In response to Perry’s prepared statement, Kyllo said, “Nope. I didn’t hear her remarks until she said them. They should have been said years ago. I heard nothing I don’t believe. You?”

Perry has not yet responded to KOIN’s request for comment.

Full Statement from
Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry

Chair Heyen, Vice Chair Lippold and Members of the Board,

On May 28, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I asked every employee in our school district one question: How are you actively antiracist? Our staff responded, and they also committed to growing in their path of antiracism. So, tonight I feel I can no longer challenge my staff without truly demonstrating the same. As the single employee of you, our seven-member board, I cannot sit quietly any longer. On behalf of our 42,000 students and over 5,000 staff members, I must stand up. If i can’t do this and speak truth to power, how can I expect it of everyone else in our organization?

Over the past week, I’ve been asked why I sit quietly. Parents are texting my staff asking why I don’t stand up for them in the Board room. I find myself quietly explaining why a seven-member board who is elected by the people is in charge of my employment. Over the past week, as we’ve met with students from our district who have experienced real traumas in our classrooms because of racism, I’ve shared that my ability to keep the equity work moving means I must keep the real issues out of the Board room. That goes against the very principles that I’ve been sharing with my staff – I am not being actively antiracist. Instead, I tell my team that we are going to show up the next day after a Board meeting to do what we’re here for – the right things for kids. Tonight, the right thing for our students is to use my position of power to do what’s right for all of our kids – our transgender students, our Black students, our queer students, our Latinx students, our Indigenous students, our students with disabilities, our Micronesian students, our immigrant students and every other child that comes through our doors.

And to all of those who are saying, “It’s about time!” I agree. And I’m truly sorry. This moment is a long-time coming, and I’m committed to getting it right. And there are thousands of educators in Salem-Keizer who share that commitment along with me.

As a cis gendered white female, I must first acknowledge that I have all kinds of privilege. While I grew up with alcoholism and a volatile household, I ultimately grew up in a world where white feminism, although new and strange, still was acceptable. I had female white role models, like my mom who was a school board member for many years and my grandmother who fought for full-day kindergarten. I could see myself as a leader because I was white. I saw myself in books, movies, and within my own family. While female leaders still face challenges including challenges in the superintendency, we don’t face the challenges that our leaders of color face.

I have quietly worked behind the scene to help you be better. But I need our community to know publicly the challenges you face as a board and what our community faces as we know better so we can do better. Being antiracist is more than the adoption of an equity lens and then using it as a hammer on district staff. It’s about examining your own biases and how you show up for not all students but specifically our historically underserved and marginalized students whose achievement does not match that of our white students. It’s about understanding racism and what it means to be a student of color in our district. And it’s about actively understanding the culture and community in which you serve, beyond adopting an annual safe and welcoming schools proclamation.

I have a fundamental belief that the best learning happens behind the scenes and that difficult equity work is hard to tackle in the board room. I remember the work session where we listened to our educators of color about their experiences and differences. It was one of the most compelling meetings we’ve had… and then you went right back to work worrying about things like who would be the next board chair and how would you tackle any concerns about policy governance.

As I’ve engaged our students and families these past 10 days, I’ve tried to help you understand the experiences of our students of color, but you have discounted the students’ experiences in a multitude of ways. After 71 comments in public testimony – the most we have ever had in my memory as superintendent – two of our members made it clear that those comments fell on deaf ears. Instead, you asked people who share your perspective to submit comment. Through that process, you white-centered the process and systematically discounted the very real experiences of our students of color even when a black man with a doctoral degree attempted to tell you it was true.

What we’ve seen from our Board in the SRO process isn’t unique. It’s been prevalent, from wanting to rewrite the equity lens to failing to stand up for our transgender students when a small portion of our community wasn’t ready to recognize Transgender Day of Visibility. Even reading the Pride Month Proclamation becomes a hot-button issue, with it always falling to Director Blasi, because she’s the only member who isn’t afraid to say the words.

We saw this systemic failure with our budget committee process, when you almost chose to prevent Levi Herrera Lopez from serving on the committee, despite him having the experience of chairing our budget committee in the past, and doing a really remarkable job of it. The membership of both Levi Herrera Lopez and Adriana Miranda bring perspective and strength to our budget committee that we don’t have when they are not there.

We have provided opportunities to help understand our own biases. Our board members barely engage in the training. We have instances of social media display of white supremacy, a black face mask and mockery over that mask. All actions I can’t defend.

We have worked to understand that when students come to us with experiences of racism in our schools, we listen. And after we listened this week, we have continually had to defend to you the experiences of our students of color. You’ve centered every conversation around how we will get the voices in the room who share your perspective.

On behalf of our students of color and our educators of color who experience racism every day in our classrooms along with their white anti-racist allies, I need you to commit to moving forward with antiracism as your guiding principle. You won’t get it it perfect. You won’t, I won’t. But we can commit to being ongoing learners together. Our youth have initiated a powerful conversation, and we applaud them. Now, together with their support, we need to develop a positive relationship that focuses on constructive results.

Moving forward:

  • I will take on my own views on as a learner and ensure that you also have that opportunity.
  • I will advocate for Director Blasi as your next board chair because she is one of the few leaders who have at least the embers of trust from our communities of color.
  • I commit to continuing to learn about racism, the racism our students experience and my own biases, and I will ask you to do the same.
  • I will learn what antiracist work is and what it requires, and I will create space for you as our Board members to learn too.
  • I will denounce Board member affiliations to groups that are considered hate groups, organizations that are discriminatory or have a specific agenda that perpetuates systemic racism.
  • I commit to apologizing specifically for my mistakes and to doing better as I will make more mistakes. But I will tend to this impact every time while centering reparation.
  • I am so committed to this, that I will only continue to do this work if I can have will and the strength to do this even if it means calling you out.
  • I commit to the vision for creating the conditions for safe and welcoming schools, especially for our students of color, which includes an antiracist agenda and truly listening to our communities of color. I urge you to reaffirm your commitment to my contract as well knowing full well my support for anti-racist learning.

I know that you want the process of SRO contracts to be yours as a board. I commit to providing you a deliberate community-centered process related to related to SRO contracts that supports ALL students, specifically our Black students, our queer students, our Latinx students, our Indigenous students, our students with disabilities, our transgender students, our Micronesian students, our immigrant students and every other child that we have the privilege to welcome into our schools. Be learners with an open heart in that process.

I want to thank a number of leaders of color who show up in our communities every day from the NAACP, Mano a Mano, the Coalition for Equality, Causa Oregon, PCUN and Latinos Unidos Siempre. Their leadership pushes me to be better. Certainly, we owe tremendous gratitude to our educators of color – licensed, classified and administrators – who experience racism in our community every day but never let that waiver in their commitment to our students. We must all follow their lead.

Christy Perry, Superintendent

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