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Oregon School Board Faces Backlash After Banning Black Lives Matter And Pride Flags

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A school board in Oregon recently took on calls for racial justice by passing a rule that teachers and staff are not allowed to wear or display Black Lives Matter signs or gay pride flags at school. Katia Riddle reports.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: It began with one Black Lives Matter poster hung in an elementary school. Some parents in this Portland exurb called Newberg objected. Things snowballed, and weeks later, school board vice chair Brian Shannon was at the school board meeting asking for a vote on this measure.

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BRIAN SHANNON: Direct the superintendent to remove all Black Lives Matter in all instances and the symbol known as the pride flag from district facilities immediately.

RIDDLE: It was approved with a 4-3 vote. Under the rule, the only political symbols or flags allowed in the school would be the state and U.S. flags.

KELLY SIMON: What the school board is doing here is unlawful.

RIDDLE: Kelly Simon is with the ACLU of Oregon. She says there's a lot that's still unclear about this rule and ambiguity about how it might apply to students.

SIMON: Both students and teachers don't lose all of their First Amendment protections when they enter the school.

RIDDLE: Simon and her colleagues are working with community organizers to fight the ban. And the superintendent has said it can't be enforced until there's more clarity around its legality. What is clear is that its passage has galvanized an unprecedented amount of civic engagement in this town of less than 25,000 people.

DAVE BROWN: I'll tell you what. I'm not a racist.

RIDDLE: Dave Brown is the Newburg School Board chair. He voted for the ban.

BROWN: I'll coach anybody anywhere, any type of kid. I'll teach him. I'll work with him. I'll live next door to him.

RIDDLE: Brown's been coaching the high school tennis team here for 23 years. He says he thinks the new rule will help kids learn and not be distracted by divisive politics. Fellow school board member Renee Powell also voted for the ban. She holds a stack of letters from community members.

RENEE POWELL: Here's another one who said, I'm a senior attending Newberg High School.

RIDDLE: Powell says she met with many people who are afraid to publicly express their support for the ban, like this student whose letter she reads.

POWELL: Having all that political and LGBTQ stuff shoved in my face at school makes me feel uncomfortable.

TAI HARDEN MOORE: Who cares if you're uncomfortable?

RIDDLE: Tai Harden Moore and her family are part of the very small Black community here. Moore says one student's discomfort is worth the tradeoff for the sense of security a Black Lives Matter sign offers to students like her son. She says her son has been called the N-word in school.

HARDEN MOORE: People walk through their entire lives being uncomfortable because of how society treats them.

RIDDLE: The ban has motivated her to run for school board. She's not the only one planning the resistance.

KRISTEN STOLLER: So first and foremost, I want to say a huge thank you for being here.

RIDDLE: Community organizer Kristen Stoller is leading parents, students and activists to strategize. They've gathered on the back patio at a local pizza shop called Honey Pie Pizza to introduce themselves.

COOPER OAKS: My name is Cooper Oaks. And it kind of sucks knowing that I'm attending a school that is kind of showing that it has no respect for me or my peers.

RIDDLE: Oaks has publicly identified as queer since seventh grade. Reid Arnold is another of the students here. He'll be a senior next year.

REID ARNOLD: Seeing those flags, if it's in a teacher's room or in the hallway, it's reassurance.

RIDDLE: Arnold came here from his job at Burgerville. He's still wearing his nametag. These flags in schools, he says, are a kind of silent code of support for vulnerable students.

ARNOLD: And so having them taken away, it's like walking through a war zone.

RIDDLE: Arnold says he was feeling excited for his little sister, who will be in her first year of high school next year. But lately, he feels more like he'll need to help protect her.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Newburg, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.