In August of 2021, the Newberg School District’s school board ruled in favor 4-3 to not allow pride flags (those representing the LGBTQ community) and BLM (Black Lives Matter) flags from being present in Newberg schools. Since the decision was made there has been a massive outcry from parents, teachers and students against the ruling. And, due to a series of racially motivated incidents, the story has garnered national attention, legal speculation and protests against the ban.
The ban was first proposed in a virtual school board meeting on Aug. 10. In that initial meeting, the ban specifically called for LGBTQ and BLM flags to be banned. However, since the initial public outcry at the targeted groups, the ban was expanded to include any political symbols that are controversial. A story by the Washington Post said, “The policy initially explicitly banned Pride and BLM symbols in all district buildings, but it was amended to broaden the language following a public outcry and concerns surrounding potential litigation.”
The reason the school board banned the flags according to those in support of the ban is because politics or anything of a politically controversial nature have no place in school. School board chair Dave Brown said, “We need to get moving back towards education. We’ve been derailed for quite a while.”
But critics of the ban say that Newberg’s politically conservative school board enacted the ban to alienate the students and staff that identify with those flags or who support “liberal” ideas. Oregon Live quoted the state’s school board vice chair Guadalupe Martinez in a story. Martinez said, “I’m sickened by the moral and ethical disregard and the conviction to racism and exclusion that certain board members from my own community continue to affirm and promote.”
The ban was one of the first agenda topics after the recent Newberg school board elections. The elections which took place in May were a close call in many school zones, but ultimately two new members, Renee Powell and Trevor DeHart, were elected to the board. These candidates were marked on the ballot as conservative and were backed by the conservative group, “Save our Schools.” “We are a group of committed community members that want to provide a quality and equitable education for all students in the state of Oregon,” said their website.
Tai Harden who was a first-time political candidate for the Newberg School Board said in an email to Pamplin Media Group, “‘I was not completely surprised by [the election results]. While there are a lot of amazing people in Newberg, the fact is, there is also a very deep problem with racism in this community. The racism here is deep-seeded and has been allowed to persist unchecked in this community for too long. The things that were said to and about me during the campaign were a clear illustration of that, and the election results are a manifestation of it.’”
This ban was first mentioned in that August school board meeting and subsequently approved in the Sept. 28 special school board meeting. Since those first meetings, the ban has caused a public outcry inspiring many protests and calls from students and staff to rescind the ban. The Oregon Board of Education also issued a statement against the ban. A story by OPB said, “The state board passed a resolution Thursday calling on Oregon’s school districts to create safe spaces for students, directly calling out the Newberg school board, asking its members to “reverse course” and ‘validate that student identities are not inherently political or controversial, but welcomed and affirmed.’”
A farmer who owns land across from the high school, enacted her own form of protest. Erin McCarthy gathered a group of volunteers who painted large wooden boards and assembled them together to create a large pride flag. McCarthy said in a statement to Fox 12 Oregon, “‘I had no idea there was such bigotry and inflammatory action that was going to take place here by the board.’”
Since she first put the pride flag up, she has gathered more volunteers to paint a BLM flag as well.
The school board and the ban has also found itself in legal trouble, as many have called into question whether this ban is legal in the state of Oregon. District lawyers were supposed to view the symbol ban first, but the Newberg school board moved to hire outside legal counsel. A story by Ryan Clarke of the Newberg Graphic said this move may have defied state law.
The American Civil Liberties Union has threatened to sue the school district if they do not rescind the ban due to the unconstitutional nature of the ban. The legal director of the Oregon chapter of the ACLU said in a statement to the Newberg Graphic, “‘Our hope is that we can connect with the district and help them understand the legal implications of their decision, and hopefully guide them toward making a better decision. If that is something we can’t do, we are certainly willing to challenge the policy in court should the policy be passed, which we believe is unconstitutional.’”
Newberg School District’s superintendent, Joe Morelock, has also said he will not enforce the ban in schools due to the legal issues surrounding it. Morelock said he had been advised by Newberg school district attorneys that the ban may be illegal under Oregon state law. Said Morelock on the subject in a Today interview, “‘I won’t be able to enforce it as it is until we’ve gone through a bunch of legal review.’”
Since the ban was first brought to light, a series of racist and discriminatory acts have taken place in and around Newberg.
In mid September a group of students was found to have started a Snapchat group called “Slave Trade.” In this group, white students from Newberg High School were found sending messages in which they pretend to buy and sell other students who are students of color. The messages include racial derogatory comments about those students and were disturbing in nature, Tami Erlion, principal of Newberg High School said in a story by KGW, “As a community, we continue to grapple with issues of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging,” wrote Erion, the school’s principal. “Newberg High School is committed to ensuring that ALL students are afforded a safe learning environment by prohibiting harassment based upon gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, religion or disability.” The students involved in the Snapchat group have been expelled.
Another incident in late September involved an employee, Lauren Pefferle, at one of Newberg’s elementary schools. Pefferle darkened her skin to look like Rosa Parks in protest to the mask mandate within Newberg School District. She has been placed on administrative leave. She said on the Lars Larson show on Sept. 23 that she has no regrets, “I thought, I feel segregated because I am unvaccinated. Something is wrong here.” Pefferle continued and said, “I don’t have any regrets.”
In addition to these two incidents, there have been several incidents of students calling minority students racial slurs and other derogatory names. In one incident at a volleyball game, students were being harassed and the referees did not put an end to the name calling. A statement by the school district said in part, “‘Our district does not tolerate racist or derogatory behavior in any fashion, including at our sporting events. We know actions are what matter. We will follow up diligently on all reports and take appropriate action as needed.” This incident and others like it led many to call for Newberg’s removal from the school division league of sports.
The battle between the school board’s ban and the general public still goes on. The ban itself and the racist incidents that have occurred have received widespread news coverage both locally and nationally. Currently the ban is still in effect although now it is only for employees of the district such as teachers and classified staff. The fight for the removal of the ban still continues as more coverage of the events in Newberg spread throughout the nation.