Yelling during public testimony, arguments between attendees and board members, and an altercation in the parking lot at the Aug. 9 Salem-Keizer Public Schools board meeting led to an indefinite virtual-only option for public participation.
This is the second time in two years that Salem-Keizer has made meetings virtual out of safety concerns not related to the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s unclear how long the moratorium on in-person meetings — where anyone from the public can attend and speak — will last. Mediation between groups has yet to be initiated.
For now, board members, district leaders and the news media can meet in person, but others must watch the meetings on TV or onlineand participate via Zoom, phone or written testimony.
The events that played out most recently came after tensions boiled over between community groups that fall into competing ideologies — an issue happening in school board meetings across the country.
Mike Slagle,a Salem parent and grandparent who unsuccessfully ran for school board in 2021, filed a formal complaint with the districtfollowing the August meeting.
Slagle believed his “civil rights were violated because of the conduct and statements made by other community members in attendance,” according to the report. He also felt threatened and felt the district should have intervened more quickly, the report said.
The complaint was investigated by Salem-Keizer’s Safety and Risk Management Services, which led to Superintendent Christy Perry restricting the public from attending in-person meetings indefinitely.
“The results of that investigation have made it clear that adults from differing ideologies engaged in negative, aggressive, and unacceptable behavior, knowing it would result in conflict, and that the youth who were present did not initiate any conflict,” Perry wrote ina letter to the community.
“It is … clear that public comment has become a public forum for political agendas, rather than a way for the board to hear concerns, constructive criticism, ideas and information,” she said. “It has continually escalated into threats and disrupted meetings.”
A recall effort was also launched in late Augustto remove three of the board’s seven members, citing their recent voting history and support for the removal of school resource officers, a decision that was made before the three were elected.
Since the district announced its findings of his complaint, Slagle has submitted an appeal, meaning he is formally requesting the superintendent review the decision. He believes the report is, in various parts, inaccurate and incomplete, including the assertion that his actions were meant to create conflict. He said he may also seek legal counsel.
Each party in the complaintfeels they have been wronged, and neither the district nor the board sees it as their place to resolve the community’s issues.
“The board would prefer to have in-person board meetings, but the district first has to determine the best way to move forward, and we don’t know what that is,” said Sylvia McDaniel, Salem-Keizer’s communications director.
“We need everyone to come together for the sake of our children,” she said. “We all have the same goal in common and that is for all students to be successful.”
LUS and Salem Keizer We Stand Together
Latinos Unidos Siempre is a youth advocacy organization in Salem whose mission is to “empower youth to take leadership roles in the community.”
According to LUS’s website, they “advocate for social and political change, while combating racist stereotypes and discrimination, through popular education and grassroots organizing.”
Members and supporters of the group regularly testify at Salem-Keizer board meetings. They were key in removing school resource officers last year. They also speak frequently in favor of initiatives that focus on anti-racism and equity, LGBTQ students, mental health funding and the hiring of more educators of color.
The group has been active in the Salem-Keizer community since the mid-1990s and is made up of activists ages 12 to 25. LUS is the youth arm of Mano a Mano Family Center, its parent organization and fiscal sponsor, according to their website.
Salem Keizer We Stand Together, which was started by parents and community members last year, identifies itself as a grassroots organization “striving to educate, equip, encourage, and empower our community to respectfully engage with one voice for parent’s rights, educational transparency, equal opportunity, academic excellence, and school choice for every student.”
“We want to replace identity politics and social activism with critical thinking, personal determination, and objective truth,” according to the group’s website.
Individuals associated with Salem Keizer We Stand Together frequently testify at board meetings. They were key in passing the board’s parent and guardian proclamation in January.
Critical race theory and comprehensive sex education are listed as two of their largest concerns. Those associated with the group also were behind unsuccessful requests to remove two books from Salem-Keizer libraries this year.
Slagle, who asked for the investigation into incidents at the August meeting, is a founding member of Salem Keizer We Stand Together, though he said he attended the meeting to testify as an individual, not on behalf of any group.
The report states it is not always clear who at these meetings is involved with which group, if any.
Chris Baldridge, head of Safety and Risk Management for Salem-Keizer, compiled the report. He argued continuing meetings with public attendance was “no longer in the best interest of the district.”
“It is my recommendation to the school board that we immediately cease any in-person attendance or in-person commenting by the public,” he said. “This pause should be for the length of time it takes for the two groups to mediate a resolution that would allow each side to express their views without confrontation.”
Baldridge also recommended formal letters be provided to the two individuals involved in the outdoor incident, and any other individuals down the line. “This would include restrictions on entering district property in the future if such actions occur again,” he said.
Tensions bubble over
Groups like LUS, the Salem-Keizer NAACP and local unions have been active participants in school board meetings for years. But there was a notable increase in overall community participation and urgency for action starting in the summer of 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 lockdowns and George Floyd protests.
That June, a petition calling for the resignations of then-member Paul Kyllo and then-chairwoman Marty Heyen reached more than 3,000 signatures.
The petition,organized by LUS, claimed Kyllo committed a racially insensitive act during a virtual board meeting in March that year. It alleged Heyen has ties to white supremacy groups, a claim that is still made by LUS and denied by Heyen.
Over the next several months, it became common for meetings to last multiple hours, with long lists of people signed up to give public testimony.
By December 2020, the school board updated its policies to give the chairperson more authority to shut down certain public comments, raising concerns that it could be used to silence opinions critical of the district or board members.
State Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, went so far as to send a letter to then-chairman Satya Chandragiri, critiquing his leadership and the actions of the board, writing, “Your attitude toward the most vulnerable among us, the language to all who disagree, and your persistent claims of victimhood are an embarrassment to our state and community.”
Division deepened in March 2021 when Superintendent Perry decided not to renew contracts with local law enforcement for school resource officers. The decision came after more than a year of debates and, though celebrated by LUS and its supporters, it was met with vocal pushback from some parents and educators.
Board members reached a point of conflict later that month when the board failed to approve Perry’s annual evaluation summary, with one board member letting out an expletive during the meeting.
“It has been the toughest leadership of a lifetime,” Perry saidat the time. “It is made tougher when we don’t have a high-functioning board.”
In May and June of 2021, the public was still only allowed to submit public testimony via writing due to COVID-19. Opposition to someboard members was increasing.
LUS organized a group that taped messages on the building where the board met, blew horns, played music and hit the windows, which made it difficult to hear members speak. Those actions, according to LUS leaders at the time, were a result of “Chandragiri and (then-vice chairwoman) Danielle Bethell silencing public testimonies and refusing to denounce white supremacy.”
Protestors also reportedly duct-taped the exterior doors, district officials said, which prevented people from exiting the building.
The board responded by restricting demonstrations at meetings to”free speech zones.” Their motionestablished areas where protesters could and could not gather wherever the board was meeting. It also established a “no-trespass zone” directly around the perimeter of the building “in order to allow the board to conduct public meetings without interference or disruption.”
The four newly elected board members in July 2021 attended their swearing-in ceremony in person. But a matter of weeks later, under the leadership of then-chairman Osvaldo Avila, the school board returned to virtual meetings, citing safety concerns due to “disrespect, racial and transphobic comments, and a disregard for health and safety protocols.”
Later in the year, LUS activists began calling for Bethell to resign, following comments she posted on Facebook about the “lack of real education and safety being provided in our schools today.”
At the end of the year, Salem Keizer We Stand Together began holding gatherings and organizing testimony for board meetings.
The group’s stances are largely at odds with LUS. Tense exchanges between the groups have taken place during virtual and in-person meetings during the past several months, with various people from both groups making claims of online harassment and doxxing.
These tensions peaked at the August meeting.
What happened at the Aug. 9 meeting?
The recent report describes three key incidents that occurred at the meeting: interactions between Slagle and LUS, behavior during public comment and an altercation in the parking lot.
The first incident took place before the meeting. According to the report, Slagle, who was outside along withLUS members waiting to go into the gymnasium, was taking pictures after being asked not to. LUS members and supporters then put up umbrellas.
Slagle said he saw this as an attempt to intimidate andstop people from going into the meeting. Investigators said they believed LUS members who said they did it to prevent more photos from being taken.
Slagle claimed LUS members filmed him in August 2021 whilewaiting in line to enter a board meeting, and that they’ve done so to others. Slagle told the Statesman Journal he took photos this time as a means of protecting himself in case of a confrontation.
Photos are typically allowed at public meetings and on public property. In Oregon, it is illegal for someone to photograph or film someone without their consent if the person is nude or under circumstances when they would have a reasonable expectation of personal privacy, such as in restrooms, dressing rooms and locker rooms.
The report also details some of the exchanges during the meeting. Many testifiers spoke either in favor or against the board’s resolution to further restrict concealed carry weapons on district property.
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Throughout the meeting, chairwoman Ashley Carson Cottingham called for order as members of the public yelled across seats to people on opposing sides. During some testimonies, viewers yelled over those speaking or yelled for school board members to stop testifiers from spreading what they believed to be hate speech.
Some whispered the words “racist” and “bigot” under their breath as opponents spoke. Others claimed the board was giving the other side more slots to testify.
People from different groups — largely affiliated with Salem Keizer We Stand Together or LUS — held signs and shared key talking points during their comments. Some yelled at the board members after major votes.
The report did not detail an argument that took place in the aisles during a break after public comment between Slagle and a member of the public who appeared to be in support of LUS. Slagle argued in his appeal that this was an especially important part of the evening’s incidents.
The final and largest altercation in the report was an escalation outside during the break.
According to the report, an estimated 30 to 45 individuals left the board meeting at about 7:40 p.m. Upon leaving, an adult member of LUS reportedly pointed and said, “Don’t let that (person) take photos of students, (they) need to leave.” This was supposedly directed at Slagle, who was leaving.
Other unidentified individuals were heard yelling similar statements. According to the report, Slagle responded, “I’m not taking photos and you can’t make me (expletive) leave.” Slagle claims this detail is inaccurate, saying he never swore.
Approximately 15 to 20 individuals then began to circle Slagle while yelling obscenities and pointing in his direction, according to the report.
A district administrator, unnamed in the report, identified Slagle and another person verbally arguing. The official stated both people were nearly chest-to-chest but never touched one another.
Slagle confirmed that was in line with his memory of the encounter, though he argues security should have stepped in sooner. The administrator stated in the report that he placed his hand on Slagle’s shoulder and stated something to the effect of “it’s time to go.”
Later in the meeting, tensions boiled over among the board members.
The elected officialsargued and spoke over each other, with Carson Cottingham again calling for decorum after Bethell accused Carson Cottingham of ignoring her desire to speak on a resolution and abusing her power as chairwoman. Carson Cottingham said at the time she had not seen Bethell asking to speak. She apologized, reopened comments and allowed Bethell to make her statement.
Perry reminded the board toward the end that their meetings are broadcast publicly. And as the district searches for its next superintendent to follow Perry’s retirement in 2023, she said they should keep in mind that these meetings show prospective hires their values.
Isaac McDonald, a co-student advisor to the board, said he could physically feel the tension during the meeting.
“I would call it an escalated atmosphere,” McDonald said. “Once I got home and had time to process the meeting, I realized how the tension in that room was a product of divisions that shouldn’t surround a school board.”
Co-student advisor Raylin Brennan said it was disappointing to see how people behaved and what behavior they modeled for students. Many of the issues people are fighting over, Brennan said, aren’t what most students are concerned about.
“Dissenting opinions are crucial to discourse,” Brennan said. “The ability to disagree with one another but to find common ground is how we can make sure we see people as people, have our voices be heard and make progress in conversations.”
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Alex Pulaski, communications director for the Oregon School Board Association, said the association respects the rights of individuals to express themselves in a civil manner.
When such behavior crosses the line and is disrupting board meetings, he said, they support a board’s right to take “reasonable steps to conduct meetings without disruption and protect the well-being of those in attendance.”
“A number of areas around the state have experienced significant disruptions at school board meetings in recent years, and, in some instances, threats against school board members and staff,” Pulaski said. “As adults, we should strive to set an example for the young people we are educating.”
Both sides feel they have been wronged
It’s not clear what mediation would look like for the groups or who would pay for it. But it seems everyone involved feels they are not at fault.
“For the past two years, (Salem-Keizer) students who are also part of LUS, as well as LUS staff, have been increasingly targeted by far-right adults in Salem-Keizer due to our advocacy,” Alex Sosa, a senior in Salem-Keizer and LUS organizer, wrote in a statement to the Statesman Journal.
“As a student, I currently don’t feel safe going to school board meetings because of these grown adults,” he said.
Many LUS members do not share their last names or further personal details during public testimony.
“Our priority is the safety of all students and community members who wish to be civically engaged,” Sosa said.
Sosa said they were thankful the district quickly investigated the incidents. However, he doesn’t think mediation is the solution.
“(LUS shows) up to advocate for an education system (we) believe in. We address elected officials, not members of the community who are against us,” Sosa said. “The handful of adults who target minors and youth for the work we do should instead take responsibility. Mediation cannot solve the doxxing of students of color and staff of LUS.”
“This is not a ‘two side’ situation,” he said. “It’s a situation where students of color are being traumatized by far-right adults.”
Slagle continues to assert Salem Keizer We Stand Together, which self-identifies as nonpartisan and nonreligious, is not a far-right or alt-right group, and that he didn’t attend the August meeting on their behalf. He said he believes he’s the one being targeted and attacked.
“It’s a personal thing. I felt like my civil rights were violated by me being racially attacked on school grounds,” he said about the August meeting. “You don’t get to do that. You don’t get to call people names based on a political view or nationality or religion or anything like that.
“They want to make them the victim and me the oppressor. It was totally the other way around,” he added. “And people don’t believe it because you’re a white man. That you can’t have racism against you. And that’s what it was; it was racism. Period.”
In his appeal, Slagle said LUS activists have done many of the things he’s being accused of, such as taking photos of parents and members of the public with opposing views, himself included.
Slagle said he thinks mediation would be good but that the mediator would need to be “neutral in their ideology and not lean one way or the other.”
“What I want is for the school board to find a way to create a policy or some kind of rule that says that we all have an equal amount of our voice being heard, that we can find a way to get along,” he said.
Abigail Eckhart, a parent and Salem Keizer We Stand Together founding member who was recently appointed to the district’sEquity Advisory Committee, has been vocal about conduct at school board meetings.
Eckhart,who identifies as Latina, previously reported issues to school board members and district leadership, saying youth activists verbally racially assaulted her and took pictures and videos of her. She claims she knows people who have received death threats for supporting the recall effort.
Eckhart has sent several emails about these issues as well as met with board and district leadership. She said her concerns have not been addressed.
“The last couple of days have left me feeling numb as well as angry,” she said in an early September email to board and district leadership, as well as members of the news media. “Your silence condones their violence.”
Eckhart told the Statesman Journal she believes anyone, whether a parent or student, who threatens or harasses a speaker or attendee of a board meeting, needs to be immediately cited fortrespassing. “Nobody should be interrupting speakers and violating their freedom of speech,” she said. “That goes for all members.”
What happens next?
Suzanne West, director of strategic initiatives for Salem-Keizer, said there is no formal plan in place for how to return to in-person meetings.
West confirmed it’s within the district’s power to trespass individuals or ban them from public meetings should it be required but said it should be a last resort.
“(Folks) typically want to engage, and we want them to engage in healthy ways,” she said. “But there have been instances where we’ve had to trespass people, and there probably will be again, unfortunately.”
The solution isn’t as simple as sitting two groups down and getting to the root of the issue, she said. There’s been involvement from people outside the Salem area, West explained, and the report pointed out it isn’t always clear who is in attendance with which group, if any.
“The ideologies, tactics and behaviors go beyond the scope of the school board,” said chairwoman Carson Cottingham. “The board’s role is to keep focused on the kids of the district. We have important goals to achieve this year and need to ensure high-quality education for all in Salem-Keizer.”