Lessons Learned in Newberg, Oregon

Trigger Warning: This article mentions racist/anti-LGBTQ+ incidents and hate speech. 

What do we learn in school? Besides reading and writing, and the other subjects required to live as a functioning adult, the lessons we learn from our teachers, classmates, and authority figures seep far deeper than any chemistry equation. Maybe sometime at school a classmate told you, “You’re pretty smart for a girl,” or “I knew you were gay all along!” Or maybe the message was more subtle. Over time, your history lessons might’ve translated to: “Your perspective only matters if you win.” With the stubborn arguments and violent threats being made to school staff over Critical Race Theory (CRT) and “controversial” symbols in schools, potentially damaging messages are being signed, sealed and delivered nationally to impressionable minds. What messages are sent to students when open support for the un-whitewashed history of America, Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ+ pride are banned? And how does this affect the behavior of the classmates and teachers around them? Only a mere 25 miles off from Portland, a sort of case study answering these exact questions is unfolding. In an obscure city that just so happens to be my home town, a boiling gumbo of toxic messages and their resulting displays of ignorance is bubbling over. 

Nestled deep in Willamette Valley wine country, the town of Newberg might ring a bell. A quaint suburbia, Newberg is known for its filberts and one of the last remaining drive-in theaters in the country. Though recently, the town has been the subject of national headlines over something far more significant than its incredible hazelnuts. Back in August, the Newberg School Board’s conservative majority passed a ban on BLM and LGBTQ+ pride signs in all school facilities, receiving widespread scrutiny: “It’s clear their personal politics are stronger than any real desire to come together as a school community,” the Newberg Education Association stated on Facebook. Following the flood of backlash they received, the policy was rewritten to prevent staff from displaying “support or opposition relating to any political, quasi-political or controversial topic,” this time excluding the specific prohibition of BLM/LGBTQ+ symbols. Despite the policy’s efforts to disguise its intentions with nauseatingly vague language, the damage had been done. Since the original approval of the ban, a series of related events are, as Tai Harden Moore (former Newberg school board candidate) stated for the Newberg Graphic, “a clear illustration of the racism and discrimination that plagues this community.” The students (and staff) of Newberg have heard loud and clear the lesson conservative board members have delivered to them: to recognize sensitive racial and gender/sexuality issues as harmful, in a “neutral learning environment”; and, to subsequently recognize students most affected by these issues as divisive. 

The resulting behavior is shocking: weeks after the ban was approved, disturbing screenshots taken from a Snapchat group, called “Slave Trade,” began circulating online; at least one student from Newberg High School was identified from the group. The chat (allegedly created by high school students in Michigan) centered around students holding a fake slave auction, as they pretended to buy and sell their Black classmates. “We condemn actions such as these which represent the antithesis of what we believe and where we stand as a Newberg Nation Family,” Newberg High School (NHS) principal Tami Erion wrote in a statement to families. “Newberg High School is committed to ensuring that all students are afforded a safe learning environment by prohibiting harassment based upon gender, sexual orientation [or] race…” Since the discovery of the chat, it’s unclear what action has been taken against the student confirmed to have had involvement as disciplinary information is not public. This shameful incident is difficult to separate from the prohibition of public support for students subsequently targeted by the ban on identity affirming and ”controversial” symbols. The notion of removing controversial topics in order to prevent controversy is a clear failure, as voiced by the residents of Newberg. “Since the school year has started, I have witnessed increased comments of bigotry, a direct response to people feeling emboldened by the recent board policy,” stated Maddie Kozlof, a counselor at Chehalem Valley Middle School, during the board’s community hearing. 

Dovetailing from Kozlof’s claim, this emboldenment has, in some cases, resulted in displays of either a complete disregard for social sensitivity, or ignorance explained only by the lack of CRT taught in schools. Days after the Snapchat images surfaced, Lauren Pefferle, a Mabel Rush Elementary school teacher’s aid (who is white) showed up for work dressed as Rosa Parks in Blackface. Her reasoning? To protest the vaccine mandate: “I feel segregated,” Pefferle explained to conservative talk radio host Lars Larson in an interview. “I never once thought of the word Blackface because I honestly don’t even know that term…I don’t use that language.” Pefferle’s statement illustrates exactly what is wrong with pretending that schools are entirely reserved for curriculum, and have no room for social issues that impact their students. Studies show youth are most susceptible to social influence between the ages of 12-18; K-12 students also spend about 13% of their waking hours in the classroom. Knowing this, shouldn’t social sensitivity, equality and tolerance be a bigger priority in schools, instead of removing symbols that support these qualities? Instead of complaining how they’ve spent “way more oxygen on this issue” than they should have, as stated by board member Brian Shannon? What Pefferle’s statement shows is that denying youth the true history of our country, the access to a real education about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. is denying them the ability to live as functioning adults that benefit the people around them, instead of abusing and degrading them, possibly without knowing they’re doing so. When instead, they could step into adulthood with the self awareness and ability to recognize how their decisions really impact people: “When the school board quickly [decided] to ban all BLM and LGBTQ symbols, I felt like you were telling me that there was no room for people like me,” Midas, a Catalyst High School student expressed at a school board meeting. “[That] my life, because of my identity, is not valued.”    

Newberg has certainly been humbled by these shameful incidents, some of which were likely motivated by this recent policy, but also by consistently unfair and questionable treatment towards marginalized groups. I remember the outrage from when I attended Newberg schools: the Republican elephant statue my principal displayed proudly in her office; LGBTQ+ couples being told to break it up, though straight couples were rarely punished for breaking PDA guidelines. On days where students were allowed to wear capes to school, rainbow capes were, apparently, prohibited. Speaking with The Oregonian, board member Brian Shannon explained that LGBTQ+ symbols fell under the category of “controversial” because several Newberg families don’t “agree with the gender ideology that flag represents.” Many Newberg residents have also argued that identity affirming symbols shouldn’t be displayed in schools because they’re politically loaded. But what this argument fails to address are the students and staff behind the symbols; they aren’t “political”, or “divisive.” “Identities such as race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation are not political statements- they are simply part of who your students are,” wrote Oregon’s Sexual Assault Task Force executive director in a letter to the school board. And who they are can’t be banned by school boards and written off as inappropriate. 

As students, we collect positive and negative lessons like cards or buttons; our outlook on life, personality and overall behavior towards those around us are impacted by this accumulating hoard. How we choose to react and adapt to these lessons is generally up to us; clearly, based on the shameful display of behavior in Newberg, some feel emboldened to react with added hatred. However, since the ban was originally approved, there has been a tremendous outcry of support for Newberg students whose identities are under attack. LGBTQ+ and BLM banners have been planted in storefronts and along streets; scores of students waved Pride flags from the bleachers during a football game between Sherwood and Newberg; numerous rallies and protests have been organized around town. House Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez even stopped by while on vacation to visit with Newberg activists. Newberg’s complicated saga is far from complete. A series of legal conflicts, further backlash and controversies are undoubtedly in their future. By the end of it, I hope the lesson displayed on the top shelf of their collection is the one told by Midas: “I am not political. I am human.”  

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