The news broke on Aug. 11, 2021 while I was at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport on my way to the East Coast to tour some colleges. Waiting in line at the gate for a flight to Philadelphia, almost 2,000 miles away from my high school, I stared at my screen in shock: “Despite calls to hear from students and staff, Newberg school board approves ban on Pride and Black Lives Matter flags,” the article read. The Newberg Public Schools district, a mere 20 miles from my home district, had rescinded their “Every Student Belongs” policy that had been enacted a little under a year ago. As the bill would infer, the Newberg school board’s decision isolated hundreds of students in their district.
Amongst the 5,000 students in Newberg schools (30% of which are minority students), it appears that almost none of their stories were heard. According to an OPB article, board member of color Ines Peña called for more student feedback before the vote, but this request was swiftly denied, with only 31 out of over 90 public comments being heard.
Fast forward two months later, where I sit typing at my computer screen. Protests including the Southridge girls’ soccer team taking a knee, the Tigard football student section displaying Pride and BLM flags, and numerous rallies in Newberg against the ban have occurred. And yet, no budging from the Newberg school district. Beyond being simply illegal, the ban on LGBTQ+ Pride and Black Lives Matter flags definitively encroaches on students’ identities, creating an extremely fearful learning environment.
Oregon’s terrifyingly racist history has certainly left its mark on the newest generation of Oregon students, which are the most diverse classes to walk the halls. It seems that every other week, an Oregon school district makes national headlines for wildly discriminatory policies. As a queer Asian American student living in one of the whitest districts in Oregon, the impacts of racist and homophobic policies across the state invoke a certain fear in me.
Throughout the past two years, school districts across the nation have been scrambling to keep up with our ever-changing political atmosphere. Some reacted with anti-racist resolutions and almost adequate policy changes, and others enacted similar policies to the Newberg Public Schools district. However, regardless of district actions, there’s no doubt that students belonging to marginalized communities feel more isolated than ever in their classrooms.
Make no mistake, the ban on LGBTQ+ Pride and Black Lives Matter flags is a direct attack on students’ identities. By saying these symbols are unfit for the classroom, Newberg district leaders are asserting that queer students and students of color are unfit for the classroom. In conversations with my peers, they’ve expressed both discomfort and fear with the decision from Newberg’s board members. The intentional exclusion of minority students is evident and extends far beyond Newberg’s city bounds. It reflects upon Oregon as a whole and directly insults the Pride, Black Lives Matter, and student voice movements.
20 miles can feel like 2,000 miles, yet it can also feel like two. At times, I balk at Newberg, absolutely stunned that something so evidently racist and homophobic could be happening half an hour away from me. Yet, other times, I feel trapped in a similar way in my own school district.
The Newberg policy, although not enacted in my hometown, called upon me to reflect on the behaviors of my school district. If faced with a similar proposition, would my district leaders genuinely listen to the students they have promised to serve?
Even though my school board has enacted resolution after resolution pledging themselves to diversity, equity, and inclusion, I can’t help but fear that one day I’ll wake up to a headline about my own district’s racist decisions. The root of that fear is the understanding that my community has yet to truly embrace the arguably radical changes that are critical to a wholly inclusive environment.
Every student belongs. It seems simple enough. But in order to ensure that everyone is genuinely and intentionally included, district leaders have an obligation to turn to their students. Without authentic student voice, particularly from those of marginalized communities, actions like Newberg Public Schools’ will only persist.