Last night, the Newberg school board held a chaotic meeting that ended without addressing its ban on political symbols in classrooms. The ban, which was approved in August, covers clothing and symbols with a political affiliation of any kind, including Black Lives Matter and pride flags, but makes an exception for the American and Oregon state flags. Ryan Clarke has been covering this story for the Newberg Graphic and attended the meeting last night.
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Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We start today with the latest from the Newberg School District. Last month, the school board approved a ban on Black Lives Matter signs and Pride flags as well as any broadly ‘political’ signs, clothing and other items. Two weeks ago, the board tabled a motion that would have rescinded the ban. They instead decided to wait for official language from their Policy Committee. But then yesterday with draft rules language in hand, the Board once again punted, albeit in a contentious and confusing meeting. Meanwhile, one week into the school year, the District is also dealing with two different Snapchat controversies involving students. Ryan Clarke has been reporting seemingly nonstop on the Newberg School District for the Newberg Graphic for weeks now, and he joins us on the line. Ryan, good to have you on the show.
Ryan Clarke: Of course. Good to be here.
Miller: We have talked in the show, on this show in the past about the school board’s vote to ban signs like Black Lives Matter signs or Pride flags, but then it actually left some of the details of what that would be, what the ban would look like, up to a smaller committee, a subset of the Board. What did that committee end up coming up with?
Clarke: The language, at this point, remains very broad and that has created concerns on the part of the district’s lawyers about how it would be enforced. But the basics of it are, and I’m quoting here, ‘that no district employee shall within acting these, within the scope of their employment, hang, post, erect, or display any posters, flags, signs or banners...’ It goes on to say, ‘...that support or relate to political, quasi-political or controversial topics.’ Now, that’s a difficult thing to tamp down and can be pretty subjective. So that’s what the school board is going to be looking at in the coming weeks, is finding ways to craft language that is legally permissible and also is enforceable.
Miller: From what you’ve heard so far, do you have a sense for what would constitute those descriptions, ‘political, quasi-political or controversial topics?’
Clarke: It is very vague at this stage. The only specificity I have seen so far in the terms of political topics is Black Lives Matter and Pride. There was an initial directive to Superintendent Morelock to immediately remove anything in the schools that have those two symbols. He and the district have yet to, or rather have said that they will not comply with that order if their lawyers are telling them that it is illegal. And that specific directive to Dr. Morelock, he said, the lawyers have told him that it is illegal as it currently stands now. As far as other quasi-political or controversial topics, I mean, you get into the weeds a little bit there. You’re talking about a great many subjects in an extremely politically divided time that could be considered political, quasi-political or controversial.
Miller: It’s striking that you’re talking about the legal advice that the Superintendent, Dr. Morelock, has talked about receiving, because these proposed rules were developed in part by new outside legal counsel hired, it seems, by just a subset, by the conservative members of the school board. This is a man named Ty Smith, who is he? And what is he known for?
Clarke: Ty Smith is an attorney based out of Canby who, for awhile, has had longstanding ties to various conservative political causes throughout the state, including in Yamhill County. He helped craft a Second Amendment sanctuary ordinance that was supported by the county, two of the county commissioners down there who have advocated for conservative political causes in the past. He has also served in various positions for the Republican Party, it’s my understanding. So, there are definitely political ties there. As far as educational attorney experience, I’ve yet to hear that discussed at meetings, but he was hired in what was really a surprise session by the Newberg School Board or rather the majority of the members, the four conservative members, in the moments leading up to an executive session. He, Brian Shannon, the Vice Chair of the Board who’s led this ban attempt on Black Lives Matter, Pride and other political symbols. He made a motion prior to the executive session to, and that essentially started a Public Session, which was not on the books and not noticed, so there’s questions about the potential legality of this lawyer’s hiring in the first place, due to Public Meeting’s Laws.
Miller: But he is currently being paid using public money that the School Board has access to?
Clarke: That is my understanding, yes. There has not been communication or transparency in the way of how this lawyer is being paid, but the way his role has been communicated is that he is the lawyer for the School Board specifically.
Miller: So, as opposed to a lawyer for the district?
Clarke: Correct. He is not retained by the district itself. The lawyers who are retained by the district itself have said to Dr. Morelock, the Superintendent, that the specific directive regarding BLM and Pride is illegal. What they say about this policy language that Smith, himself wrote, and the potential legality of that, remains to be seen.
Miller: What happened at the board meeting last night? And I should say you wrote an entire long article about it, and we can get into some of the details. But first, broadly what was it like?
Clarke: It was the way it’s been the last few weeks. You know, I’ve been covering School Board Meetings for a couple of years now. I’ve been working at the [Newberg] Graphic for about three years and they have not typically been this eventful, but these days, they’re going a lot longer and there’s a lot more happening. There’s a lot of contention, a lot of uncertainty, both from a political standpoint and even potentially, a legal standpoint. So folks in the public and myself have to be aware and as far as last night’s meeting goes, I mean the contention was still there, the political divide was still there, there are Board members who are accusing the chair, Dave Brown, of stacking the deck as far as public comment goes.
Miller: Can you describe the text messages that you reported on recently? There’s a screenshot of some text messages and what the allegations are, in terms of the Board President or the conservative board members’ ability or desire to control public comments?
Clarke: There are allegations out there from other Board members, be it Brandy Penner, who’s on the board or folks who are submitting public comments themselves in the community, that Chair Dave Brown is stacking the deck as far as Public Comment is concerned, and I received information about text messages between Dave Brown and Board Secretary, Jenn Nelson, where he asked that she please move a person into the top 5 to 10 speakers at a previous meeting, and followed up with asking if she got his two desired speakers to move up on the list. Now, in a situation where there are folks who want to comment publicly but are not able to do so, which has been the case for the last couple of board meetings, that raises some questions and it causes folks to be pretty upset that they don’t feel that this is an accurate representation of the community’s response to this. And one woman even noted that the process for submitting public comment has changed without public notice and that in the form, you’re asked to describe your position on the issue that you’re commenting [on], which has not been the case in the past.
Miller: What did people say was the result of that? It seems like on the form, they had to say, for example, ‘I’m in favor of the proposed ban on Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter signs or Pride flags’ or ‘I’m opposed to this Ban.’ Is it clear what the board then did with that information?
Clarke: It is not clear at this point, but the allegations on the part of fellow board members and of the folks who desire to comment in the community, is that they are attempting to create false balance here, and claim that the community is divided on this issue more so than it is, and framing themselves as potentially the folks who are trying to bridge that divide those folks in the majority on the School Board. From what I’ve heard, and from what other School Board members have said, as far as communications from the public, the majority of folks in Newberg who have spoken out on this, disagree with the ban itself, and that’s a consistent thing I hear personally, in my reporting in Newberg and something that board members have heard as well.
Miller: Was that reflected in the line up last night?
Clarke: No, it was definitely a lot more balanced as far as those issues are concerned. And Dave Brown has expressed a desire to get new people in public commenting on these issues. But a lot of the folks who were commenting in favor of the Ban were repeat attendees, I’ve seen them show up to- and be allowed to speak at Board meetings- multiple times before, and there are a lot of folks who haven’t had a chance yet. So to that end, the board has planned a two hour long meeting on September 22 that will be just public comment. Now, what they do with that public comment, or if it affects their decision making remains to be seen. But that is on the docket.
Miller: If you’re just tuning in we’re talking right now with Ryan Clarke, Reporter for the Newberg Graphic and we’re talking about the latest of what happened with the Newberg School Board last night, and more broadly what’s been happening with the district for weeks now. How exactly did the board talk about this proposed rule yesterday? What exactly did they say about it? And what will happen with it going forward?
Clarke: There was very little discussion in the way of the Pride, Black Lives Matter in political ban language. The intent of one of the agenda items last night was for it to be the first reading of the policy, to the remainder of the board, because it had just been crafted and finalized by the Board’s Policy Committee. That committee, mind you, includes Brian Shannon, who has been the main driver of this Ban from the beginning, and Trevor DeHart, who is among the four person conservative majority. And the third member is Rebecca Piros, who has been against this from the start. So she was outnumbered in that regard and her concerns were not addressed very much in the crafting of this. Now, the ban policy language, specifically, according to Brian Shannon, was written by Ty Smith, this lawyer out of Canby who the board hired at a previous meeting, and there’s concerns from district staff about the formatting reading more as a declaration than as a piece of policy. And there’s also concerns, according to other board members from the district’s lawyers, the lawyers who are actually retained by the district itself, that even with this tamped down policy language for this ban, that it still could face numerous legal hurdles. And there are a number of legal actions that could potentially happen in the next few weeks and months coming out of the ACLU of Oregon and from the Newberg Teachers’ Union.
Miller: I want to hear more about that potential legal action. But first, you got a really dramatic quote from a teacher, from Gail Grobey, an English Teacher at Newberg High School and the organizing Chairperson for the Newberg Teachers’ Union. She said this to you: ‘I’ve spent 23 years in this district and you can’t tell me what to do. I know my kids and I know what’s best for them, and what to do to help them feel comfortable. I took the American flag down in my classroom because that’s the most political symbol there is. When I see board member Trevor DeHart sitting there at those Board Meetings with that giant American flag behind him, it’s terrifying. That symbol doesn’t stand for freedom or justice or equality anymore. It stands for violence and menace and intolerance, and I will not fly that in my room.’ I’m curious what else you heard from teachers or students in the last week or so about the start of this school year?
Clarke: A lot of it has been on the part of teachers, frustration at the distraction of all of this mess with the School Board. This year is a particularly challenging one for school districts, for school boards, and in particular for school employees and students themselves. We have the worry of COVID, about mask mandates, about vaccine mandates. About just getting back in the classroom and learning again for the first time in, for some people, 18 plus months. So there’s a lot to worry about there and from what I’ve heard from folks in the community, be they parents or students or community members or teachers, is that this has created a distraction from issues that they perceive to be a lot more important and that this was brought up initially by these four board members as more of a political play than something that was even perceived to be a problem in the first place. You know, Gail Grobey, the teacher you quoted, said that most, and she’s been a Teacher in the District for 20 plus years, she said that most teachers at Newberg High School and all the other schools don’t even have this type of signage, be it specific to Black Lives Matter or Pride, so it was a nonissue in their view in the first place.
Miller: I want to turn to another serious issue in front of the District, two different Snapchat controversies that were recently announced in the last couple days. Let’s start with the one involving firearms. What have you learned about what was posted by students in a video?
Clarke: I have not learned many specifics on that specific issue, as far as the firearms situation goes, but I have been made aware of the issue involving the group that included racial epithets and other bigoted language that one student was involved in.
Miller: So this other one, and I should say, I saw a press release by school officials saying something like some students were seen with what appeared to be firearms and local authorities and school officials are following up with that. For the other one, this one actually goes back awhile, but it’s only become public in the last couple days. It’s a Snapchat group called Slave Trade. What can you tell us about this?
Clarke: Yes, this is a really unfortunate and disheartening story in that there was a group on the social media app Snapchat where people at different high schools throughout the country, and this was apparently started in Michigan, according to Newberg officials, they joined the group titled Slave Trade and posted photos of their Black classmates in the group and joked about how much they would pay for those classmates, were they to sell them on a slave trade. There’s a lot of really hateful language, violent language in those messages. It was directed at students that attend local high schools. I mean, these were classmates of this, at least one Newberg High School student who was involved in this, that they posted photos of them and said all sorts of really unfortunate things. So the School District has now addressed this and said it’s investigating and that disciplinary measures will be taken if necessary.
Miller: This has been not just that racist and homophobic Snapchat group, but more broadly, all of the controversies surrounding Newberg Schools. This has become a national story or a series of national stories. What do you see as a local impact of that national attention?
Clarke: I think that it’s two things, it serves as a distraction for students and teachers in the district and administrators who are just trying to do their jobs in the face of a global pandemic and a lot of other politically divisive issues that find their ways into schools. And I also think it has potential to do damage to the reputation of Newberg and of rural America more broadly, that folks who are of diverse backgrounds may not be welcome in a place like that, or in a school like that and speaking to the people who work in these schools, they don’t believe that, and they know that’s not true. And the same goes for the folks who live in Newberg as well. Newberg, in my three years covering news there, has its problems and it has to confront these bigotries and racisms that are deep seated in a lot of institutions, but it is a kind town filled with friendly people who are largely accepting of people of all kinds of backgrounds. And that goes for the vast majority of folks that you’ll run into in Newberg and that’s not to say that there are not problems that absolutely need to be addressed as we have seen here.
Miller: Ryan Clarke, thanks very much for joining us today.
Clarke: Thank you.
Miller: It’s Ryan Clarke, Reporter at the Newberg Graphic.