Setting Limits: Parents speak out against bullying at school board meeting

November 2016 Posted in Community, School

By Kristine Thomas

A clearer line needs to be drawn to define what is harassment. Students need to know when the line has been crossed and what consequences they will face for crossing it.

That, along with what defines appropriate conduct for a school board member communicating using social media, were the two messages shared by several people who attended the Silver Falls School board meeting Nov. 14.

“There needs to be a fine line drawn in the sand so students know what is acceptable. Both sides are getting picked on,” parent Enez Bradford said. “This is a teachable moment but we can’t gloss it over. It needs to be dealt with.”

Parents who addressed the board were concerned about what has taken place regarding bullying and harassment following the Nov. 8 election of Republican President-Elect Donald Trump.

A pro-Trump rally on election day by about 35 Silverton High School students sparked a discourse of inappropriate comments. Hispanic students were told to pack their bags and go home to Mexico. Trump supporters reported being called names and cursed at. One student displayed a Confederate flag. 

Tensions were elevated after the election, leading Silverton High School Principal Justin Lieuallen to four meetings – one with each grade level – to  teach students skills on how to respectfully communicate and interact with one another, regardless of ideas or opinions

Silver Falls School District Superintendent Andy Bellando said regardless of individual political views, people need to stand together as a community to make sure that each and every student feels safe, welcome and supported at school. He said he has received multiple emails and phone calls.

“This means that we will not tolerate harassment, intimidation or bigotry in any shape or form. This is central to our mission as a school district,” Bellando said.

The superintendent said work is being done, mostly with the high school staff, to address the issue and to teach students what is and isn’t appropriate behavior.

Silverton parent Elizabeth Neves is a licensed professional counselor working at the Oregon State Hospital. As a state worker, she was required to attend training about multicultural/diversity awareness, sensitivity and competencies. 

“As a counselor, I listen to stories of life-changing events, including instances of discrimination, intolerance, and trauma,” she said.

Neves said the planned political rally on Nov. 8 at the high school was traumatic to multiple students and adults. It highlighted the ongoing problem, she said, that words and opinions cloaked as “freedom of speech” often result from of a lack of diversity training and education.

“Freedom of speech is not hateful remarks like ‘Pack your bags, you’re leaving tomorrow’ and ‘Tell your family good-bye’ being shouted at Hispanic students,” she told the board.

She shared how language can be a weapon that can hurt or help a person.

“However, what has been witnessed and expressed here recently by students under the guise of freedom of speech is not acceptable and, worse, sets the stage for harm to be done to students’ developing identities,” Neves said.

She encouraged the board to provide both students and the community a “thorough and ongoing trauma-informed cultural competency training series.” 

“A comprehensive training opportunity will help heal the damage for our school and community and put us in the forefront of positive news; fostering humility, community, and promoting understanding; something that our children and Silverton at large will thrive under,” Neves said.   

Concerns about board member

Silverton resident and parent Shelly Nealon told the board she was speaking to share her “shock and dismay” about the behavior of board member Todd White and to ask the board to censure White.

“Mr. White has been long known among Silverton area Facebook users to be a cyber bully, calling people names, and using threatening language when he does not agree with a person’s point of view,” Nealon told the board. Nealon said she believes White’s social media behavior violates both the school board’s code of conduct as well as the code of conduct signed by all SHS students.

“These codes are particularly important at a time like now when students have recently harassed one another due to conflicts over the election,” Nealon said.

“It is at these times that we particularly need excellent leadership and demonstrations of how to treat one another. Our board member Todd White demonstrates neither the leadership skills nor temperament our students should aspire to.” 

Both Nealon and Naseem Rakha, a SHS parent, gave the board and Bellando several examples of messages sent by White on Facebook.

“I implore the board to take a look at these messages he has sent out and censure this behavior,” Nealon said. “In doing so, this will send a message of solidarity amongst the board members that they are putting our children first. That we come together as a community to work through these tough times.”

Rakha said the messages on social media are hateful and disregard the “very real fear so many people — many of them children — have, and it violates the Board’s Code of Conduct.”

“The greater issue here is that we need sympathy and empathy for one another,” Rakha said, adding what is happening at the school is a microcosm of what is happening in the city, state and country. 

Nealon emphasized to the board the importance of addressing parents’ concerns about harassment at the schools.

“This is the tipping point of a very long and systematic history in this town,” Nealon said. “Anyone can be bullied. We want to discuss solutions to better our schools where everyone feels included.”

SHS senior Karla Rodriguez told the board the students who held the pro-Trump rally took their freedom of speech and turned it into racism and discrimination. She said she is scared to attend school and she has been cyber bullied. She also has been the victim of rumors. After the meeting, she said she wants the harassment at the school to stop.

“Everyone needs to be aware of the issue,” she said. “I am not letting go of the issue and pretending it’s not a big deal.”

Freshman Hannah Brown told the board not to ignore or gloss over what is happening at the high school. “There is a history of systematic racism in our country,” she said. “We can’t pretend it isn’t happening here.”

Board member Aaron Koch told Rodriguez he was sorry for what has happened to her. Koch said Silverton is a tight-knit community that cares about its students. He challenged community members and parents to be aware of what is being said in their homes and any time inappropriate comments are made to make it clear it is not acceptable.

Bellando said the district knows it has work to do and he appreciates the feedback from the community.
“I give you my word and my commitment that we will address this,” Bellando said.

Board member Tim Roth said he and his fellow board members and the administrators take the comments shared with them by community members seriously.

“This is not a one-and-done conversation,” Roth said. “We are attentive to the situation and it will be taken seriously.”

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