A survey from the local Restorative Justice and Equity group revealed a shocking number of students at Bend-La Pine Schools and Central Oregon Community College experienced racism inside the classroom. In response to the shooting death of Barry Washington, Jr., RJE recently held a press conference, aiming to shine a light on the discrimination local students face in schools.
Over three town halls, RJE reported that one in three students of color often felt unsafe at school because of their race; 87% heard racist remarks some of the time or more and more than 30% of students say teachers never intervened if they heard racist remarks.
Volunteer groups, non-profits and individuals are addressing the issue through student workshops, community action and training for teachers. RJE held its first town hall in October 2018, and held two more before COVID-19 stalled plans for a fourth. The town halls, called Let's Talk About Race, originally aimed to challenge strict disciplinary actions that disproportionately affect students of color.
"When we start to look at these events from an ethnicity and culture lens, we see that in the first case that it reflects othering, that often these events occur because people of color have been treated as outsiders and not really legitimate participants in our community," said Dr. Dalton Miller Jones, co-chair of RJE. "Secondly, the lens suggests that if you're going to change this situation, you have to do something more than mediate an incident; you have to be prepared to work with all of the stakeholders to try to create a change in the culture."
Though students from an ethnic minority bear a disproportionate burden from "othering," Miller-Jones said lower-income white Americans also can be burdened. RJE's organizers believe educational outcomes can be improved if schools do more to address inequalities in the school systems.
"I've been doing restorative justice in schools in California for 13 years. We saw a significant difference, especially in our minorities and our children who have poverty, as far as a significant decrease in suspensions, expulsion, an increase in attendance, and that's what we would like to see happening in the Bend-La Pine School District," said Dr. Janet Gray, a school district administrator who volunteers with RJE.
Gray said BLPS could reach similar outcomes within five years. Amending disciplinary procedures is just a piece of the puzzle, and the ultimate end goal is to create a culture that's more mindful of other cultures.
"It is instrumental in just changing the lives of these young people," Gray said. "A lot of people think the restorative justice portion is for discipline, but it's to create that sense of belonging."
"When it comes to education of culture instance in Oregon in general, not just Central Oregon, we are light years behind."—Marcus LeGrandtweet this
Student conversations are an important part of RJE's goals, but since the pandemic the group has been more proactive arranging training for teachers. Miller-Jones said many educators don't come from a multicultural background, which can lead to misunderstandings in the classroom. The path forward for RJE involves both formalized training and less formal lessons, like informing teachers of students' perspectives in their schools.
"Faculty invited all the students from the other high schools and they had a meal. They told the teachers what it was like to go to school as a student of color at La Pine High School, and most of the teachers were visibly moved," said Beth Hoover, co-chair of RJE. "There's been actual work that's come out of the town halls that has empowered kids to go back and say, 'we need change.'"
Working through partnershipsRJE doesn't work alone and is joined by a number of progressive groups in Bend. The Father's Group, Embrace Bend, Central Oregon Diversity Project, Central Oregon Black Leaders Assembly and the Latino Community Association have all partnered with RJE in its projects.
"Every one of them are allies," Miller-Jones said. "We try to share information, and support various events that are held by the other groups. A large percentage of our community cadre are made up of individuals from those organizations who volunteer to work with us in the schools."
These organizations have their own programs to promote inclusivity and reduce inequality in schools. A program from The Father's Group began on Oct. 6, focusing on arts and culture that may not be included in a school's official curriculum.
"We're doing an after-school program which teaches not only culturally relevant curriculum, and what that may mean—it is just an engagement of, from students from a different perspective or a different lens," said Marcus LeGrand, an executive board member for The Father's Group and a Bend-La Pine school board member.
Topics can range from African drumming and its historic and cultural significance to health and nutrition classes, financial literacy lessons and mentor and leadership classes. LeGrand says there's a long way to go for cultural education across the state.
"When it comes to education of culture in Oregon in general, not just Central Oregon, we are light years behind," LeGrand said. "Student engagement is behind in terms of understanding what their power is and what their privilege is in terms of education."
Pushback in the districtPrograms are making progress, but they're also met with a very vocal group of parents and activists who are aggressively targeting school districts for perceived promotion of critical race theory. The theory is a largely contained to law schools and isn't a part of K-12 curriculum; complaints usually allege either an anti-white or leftist bias among educators. The issue was central to several of the failed school board candidates' platforms in the June school board elections.
"In a single week we often now receive more emails than previous boards received in a single year," said Melissa Barnes Dholakia, Bend-La Pine school board president, in a statement during the board's Oct. 11 regular meeting. "We have also received more—to date all determined to be unfounded—complaints filed against board members in the last six months than I believe in the last decade."
Board members are also being targeted nationally.
Board member Janet Sarai Llerandi was recently featured on Professor Watch List, a database of teachers accused of having a left-wing bias. The list is run by Turning Point USA, which promotes conservatism in high school and college campuses. It recently posted a meme of Llerandi on its Instagram page of over 1 million followers, where Turning Point derided her use of an Angela Davis quote on her school district profile page.
LeGrand said despite the vocal opposition, school board opponents rarely are knowledgeable on the subjects they're attempting to steer.
"Many of those people who basically are saying this is what we're doing have not even engaged with us in any form or fashion," LeGrand said.