Think Out Loud

Parents of Black students respond to harassment in Central Oregon

By Chris Gonzalez (OPB)
March 31, 2022 4:21 p.m. Updated: March 31, 2022 4:23 p.m.

Thursday, March 31

Parents of Black students in Central Oregon are struggling to protect their kids from racial harassment at school. Some parents have decided to take their kids out of school and are looking for alternative options. We talk to one of those parents, Kenny Adams, and Marcus LeGrand, Vice-Chair and Director of Bend-La Pine School Board. We hear more about what they’re facing and how they are helping kids cope.

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Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB. This is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to racist incidents in central Oregon schools. In particular, Black students being called the N-word. As Bryce Dole wrote recently in the Bend Bulletin, there have been 30 reported incidents of this racial epithet since September. Half of those were in Bend-La Pine schools. These experiences led one black student at Bend High School to ask his mother to take him out of in-person learning and put him in hybrid classes. She did and that wasn’t the first time a Black family made that decision. Kenny Adams took his kids out of Bend-La Pine schools about four years ago. He joins us now to talk about this along with Marcus LeGrande who is a member of the Bend-La Pine School Board. Welcome to you both.

Kenny Adams: Thanks for having us.

LeGrande: Thanks for having us. Dave, appreciate it so much.

Miller: Kenny, to start with you. As I noted, you made the decision to take two kids out of Bend’s schools a few years ago, now, this was I think during the 2018-2019 school year. Can you give us a sense for what they were experiencing before that?

Adams: Well really what we ended up having to deal with was, they were dealing with students that were just flippantly using the N-word as well as other racial slurs and one was directed at my daughter. When my daughter experienced this, she brought it up to myself and my wife as well as she did bring it up to the, she went straight to the principal. She wasn’t sure exactly what to do in that instance because it was her first experience, hearing or being called that. So, we were like, okay, so yeah, let’s go ahead and bring this to the faculty. And she did. And they had, what was said to her was, oh well that’s not the worst thing that this kid has done and that’s pretty much where it was dropped. And we had a long conversation with her and she was like, I don’t want to, she’s like, this is an ongoing thing. This is, it’s not just me, this has happened with other students as well. And obviously nothing was being done about it. I just don’t feel comfortable with this. And she went to the high school, because this happened when she was in her eighth grade year, she moved, went on to high school and it was almost worse. So we had a long conversation, we’re very open with our kids and she was like, it’s hard to concentrate. It’s hard to actually focus. So I’m wondering if we can find an alternative, can we find an online school, this is pre-pandemic. So we did. And at the time my next oldest child was like, yeah, I’m hearing it always as well. I don’t want to experience this as well. It’s just, it’s too distracting. I don’t feel like any of the faculty or teachers are listening, we bring it up to them and it just kind of gets dropped. And we actually pulled, because we have four kids, we pulled all four kids out because we didn’t want the younger, the younger ones having to deal with complaints falling on deaf ears as well. So they all went remote learning from jump and now only one of our kids is back in the Bend-LaPine school system.

Miller: What went through your mind? I guess I’m talking about, I’m wondering about two different specific times here. First, when your daughter first came to you and told you that a fellow student had called her the N-word. What went through your mind?

Adams: Well, for me, it was repeated trauma, because I was called the N-word for the first time at age 12. And it’s something that sticks with you. It’s something that you will, you’ll never forget. So when she brought it up to me, it was, you have this bit of preparedness as Black parents, you have these conversations with your kids and they’re aware that this is a possibility or probability, I should say. So when it was brought up to, brought up that this happened, it was, okay, well, I guess we’re at that point now and there’s several ranges of emotion: rage, anger sadness, because you would hope that we would have made progress from back when I was in school, but obviously we haven’t made progress in certain areas because these are learned experiences, these are learned behaviors. So there is, they’re learning this behavior from somewhere and our kids are the ones that are in front of these attacks. So it was very, very frustrating and angering and, but we knew we needed to make a decision incredibly fast.

Miller: Is it possible that it was even worse, to hear that teachers or administrators did nothing about it, to have the response be that’s not the worst thing this kid has done and seemingly just sort of washing their hands of it? Was that even worse?

Adams: Oh, unfortunately, it’s expected. When you and again, you also have to remember this was pre-June 2020 when everything really kicked off after the murder of George Floyd and everyone started putting a hyper focus and hyper awareness on racial issues. Yeah, we try to, continue to try to do the work, but prior to that, but then when that happened, that’s when everything, everything imploded and exploded at the same time. So do I think that it would have been handled differently after that? Possibly. But I’ve also continued to hear stories coming out of some of the schools as well. That’s why I’m also very thankful for Marcus, for the work that he’s doing in the Bend-La Pine Schools as well because it is something that needs to be, these are targeted incidents that are happening to kids of color and when you have employees or when you have faculty that will still turn a blind eye to it, it’s incredibly frustrating. So, again, that was pre-June 2020, so at that time, you didn’t think that there was any real support coming from the school board, there wasn’t real support coming from the schools. So it’s tough navigating that because you feel completely, totally isolated and alone and you have to, you have to stand up, you have to stand up for your kids, you have to stand up. And make no mistake, I mentioned, as we were pulling our kids out of the school, we made sure that we mentioned it to the school and to the school board as well, that this was an issue. And back then it didn’t really seem like there was anything that was done about it, but I think that that’s changing now.

Miller: Well, Marcus LeGrande, let’s go to you. I’m curious before we get to that last point that Kenny just brought up, that things are changing. I’m wondering if you can give us a sense for the stories that you have heard in recent months or recent years that have really stayed with you. The stories that you’ve heard from students.

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LeGrande: Thank you, Dave, appreciate it. I can talk about some of the stories students have given me over the years, but Kenny’s correct. It predates the pandemic. A lot of these issues were happening. We were having Town Hall meetings, with restorative justice and equity here in our town for a number of years. And the students would let us know about all these incidents that were happening within their schools. The critical piece many of the students were saying is they didn’t trust the system, because if something happened, they thought it was gonna be swept under the rug or that the perpetrators of the harassment, basically, we’re not, nothing was happening to them because the kids were still doing it. So when the students don’t trust the system and then when someone like myself comes into a school and we want to tell you that information that lets you know we have some work to do. Here’s the, here’s the critical piece of it. It’s not about just the stories, it’s about, okay, why aren’t administrations, why aren’t teachers, why aren’t people beginning to understand this is a harsh and heinous thing that you’re doing by putting this pressure on students to have to deal with this on a daily basis. You have to look at it from that perspective. You have to look at, okay, why do we have a zero tolerance policy within our schools in terms of discipline? Why isn’t it being implemented correctly? I’m not saying all teachers do this and that some teachers do step in. I’m not saying that they don’t have people that can provide it, that they can confide in, but they’re there. But the thing is though, it shouldn’t have to fall on them. My concern is this, why is it that our students of color have to be the ones to bring this to the forefront for anyone to say anything or someone had to commit suicide or something bad happens for it to be recognized or people start pulling their kids out of schools? What is the, what is the concern? It’s like Kenny said, it’s a, it’s a learned behavior. How do we fix the culture? We’ve got to be able to do the culture from inside of each school and that means you’ve got to figure out who’s having the willingness to step up and want to handle these situations? I feel sorry, not only is my friend Kenny having his kids have to go through this.

I’m sad because these students just want to be students. They just want to go to school and be able to just amplify their voice, to be able to just get the education they deserve and they just want to be able to go to be seen. The situation I want to figure out too is, and I notice it’s not all need to be weighing on the teachers or on the administrators, but the parents too, where is their, where is their justification for this? Why aren’t they stepping up and being angry, and not just the students or the students of color, the people who are their friends, the people who they work with, who are their colleagues. Why aren’t they stepping up and trying to help educate and be better at doing this, because we try to, if it falls on all the teachers and it falls on all the administrators and it falls on all the students of color to have to deal with this, then who’s gonna be accountable, for anything?

Miller: What is the system that is supposed to be in place? Because you mentioned a zero tolerance policy. Officially, what’s supposed to happen if a student reports some kind of racist incident, like the ones at the heart of this particular conversation, being called this particular racial epithet. What is supposed to happen, according to the district?

LeGrande: So just like anything else, you have an incident report that was reported to a teacher or administrator, get the information, turn a report in and it is turned in and it comes to our district office and someone in those different areas who helps handle these reports, handles it. And they call the school administrators to be able to say, ‘Hey, what are we going to be able to handle this incident? Are we gonna bring the parents in? Are we going to do restorative practices? What are we gonna do to be able to educate the students who did it? What are we gonna do for the victim? What are we gonna do to support them?’ And that’s what’s supposed to happen. But here’s the problem. It was more than 30 incidents. A lot of students don’t report the incidents. You see what I mean? So the process was supposed to be that and it was supposed to be, here’s what we’re going to handle and then they’re supposed to take the next steps to be able to have that hearing and talk to the various students and their families to be able to figure out what needs to happen. But when a student doesn’t report it, we don’t know. But imagine how many reports go unreported. Why are they fearful not to report them? Right? Because that’s the system. The system is not trusted. So we have to figure out how we build a better system, right? How do we make sure that the students feel safe when they report and they don’t feel alienated by reporting? Because remember, many of these students are a lot of times the only people of color in their classrooms. So why is the weight on them? We have to empower the students, their friends, their colleagues, the people in the schools to be able to support these students with what they need.

Miller: Kenny Adams, I’m curious what your kids’ transition to online learning was like. I mean, we heard the difficult conversations you had with your kids and the decisions behind that switch. I’m curious how it’s going.

Adams: Well, I actually would say that for my three, for the three older kids that I have, their transition was actually fantastic, to be honest, not having that as a distraction, not having that as a constant concern, their grades went up. My kids are incredibly intelligent, but having to deal with that stress of knowing that they didn’t have that support back then and then going into the online learning environment. I mean, my daughter ended up graduating early. My next two, they’re on track to, oh my next oldest graduates this year, and then the other one he’s in ninth grade now. My youngest is now back in the Bend-LaPine School system, I feel a bit more comfortable having them in school as well now and they’re just really an in person learning type of type of personality, but really ultimately a bottom line of it though, is, and I’m going to echo something that Marcus said, it really at the end of the day, when you’re, when you have these kids that are getting, that are being victimized, they shouldn’t have to be the ones that are actively working for that change. This is supposed to be a learning environment. This is supposed to be something that they go in, get their education so that they can progress in their life, but now they’re having to deal with these students that are doing this, and then you also have parents that think that it’s no big deal. You see endless comments on social media, you see endless comments on news stories in their comments section, where you bring up something like this, when this article ran in the Bulletin, there were so many people coming and saying, oh, what people can’t deal with getting called names? I got called names when I was in school, but the name calling is completely different than those types of attacks (which) were completely different. So, when my, when my kids were actually in, or with them being in the online learning environment, being able to get in and get their classes done, not have to worry about going through the hallways of having kids shoving them or shoulder blocking them, or hearing the N-word said in casual conversation or directed at them. It’s a very large load off their shoulders. So…

Miller: Well now, I wanted to go back to Marcus, because you both mentioned that things have changed, but I’m struggling to hear the ways that things have actually gotten better. Marcus, are things any better than what Kenny’s kids experienced four years ago? And what you’ve been saying, kids have regularly been experiencing even recently?

LeGrande: It’s getting better. It has to, because we have people who are not only on the board, but people are in the halls or in administrations are saying, hey, we gotta do some work, and their willingness to want to make these changes are great. Community people are stepping up too, wanting to be volunteers, and it’s getting better because we’re bringing not only awareness to the changes that need to be made, we’re part of their, part of our board goals and they’re part of our district goals and they all fall in line with one another. And that’s what we’re looking at. We’re looking at making things more equitable. We’re looking at trying to make sure that we look at how can we have more diverse curriculum, because in 2026, the state of Oregon is mandating that African American history must be in all schools, 5 through 12 and it’s gonna go from K-5 eventually. So we’re starting to prepare for those things and we’re starting to look at policies that need to be changed. Looking at our discipline policies. We’re looking at trying to make sure we continue on our own, in terms of trying to find more minority candidates to be able to get to the state standard of 10%, based on our population and based on what we have in terms of our schools. So we’re looking at all those things and trying to make those, those household changes because if we don’t, then these students will never get the support they need.

Miller: Kenny Adams, let me put it to you this way, if a black family moved to Bend tomorrow, looked you up and said, “Hey, we’ve got two kids, they’re going to be Sophomores and Seniors in high school in the next school year,” and they said, “We’ve heard about everything you’ve said, we’ve heard about your family’s experiences, should we send our kids to Bend-La Pine schools or should we stick with some kind of online option?” What would you tell them?

Adams: And I also wanted to add in, just to clarify, I do think things have gotten better, and the reason why I say that is what I’m experiencing with my youngest. My youngest has raised a couple of issues. My youngest is nine and they’ve mentioned a few things, not necessarily fully on the racial aspect, but when it has been raised, because they’re, it’s school. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. We still have bullying issues as well. And that’s just, I think that’s unfortunately not something that’s ever going to go away. So when they brought that up, the faculty has been very good about communicating with me as a parent, has looked at it to make sure that there were no racial incidents that were involved in the bullying, so that was a breath of fresh air. So to answer your question, yeah, I think I still would recommend that their kids go in, but also what I would also say though is, I’m a big encourager of communication with your kids. So if your kids are talking about going into high school, kids and students, they have, their mindsets aren’t necessarily, as for lack of better way of putting it, tainted as ours are as adults. So sometimes, I think that students look at things a little bit more clearly, when they’re at that ground level. We’re looking at things from a bird’s eye view. As a parent, we’re not in the schools on a daily basis. I mean, I know Marcus is, but me as a parent, I’m not in the school on a daily basis. I’m looking at things from what I’m hearing from my my kids, from other students, from other parents, but with my with my kids on the ground level, I want to have that communication with them to really have these really big heart to hearts of, okay, so what are you experiencing, what are you dealing with? Is there anything that needs to be brought up? So I am encouraged and I have had other parents ask me that very question, should I be concerned? And I’m like, have a conversation with your kid, that’s where you need to start, you need to find out exactly what you’re dealing with, find out what their what their concerns are, what, if they’re having issues with specific faculty or with specific students and then address those, but I still would say that, especially with the work that the current school board is doing right now. And I think school boards across the country are dealing with a lot of attacks. The school boards are dealing with a lot of opposition to cracking that generational mold of excluding a lot of actual history. Some people call it CRT. Some people call, some people are saying that it’s discrimination against white people, No, this is just general history and history is dirty, history is gross. So when we actually take the time to actually learn these things and work to change them from a foundational level, I think that it is a better place for kids. So yeah, I would encourage parents to have their kids go to the school, but also know that they need to seek out that support, like Marcus mentioned, restorative justice, reaching out to the school board, because the school board does listen, they are listening to, at least in central Oregon they are. I obviously can’t speak for other school systems, but I know that they actually are listening and working to make some effective changes, to make sure that the learning environment is safe for our students.

Miller: Kenny Adams and Marcus LeGrande, thanks very much.

LeGrande: Thank you for having us. Thank you.

Adams: Thank you.

Miller: Kenny Adams is the Executive Director of the Fathers Group. Marcus LeGrande is a member of the Bend-La Pine School Board.

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