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Tensions run high at Salem-Keizer School Board meeting

A recording of the board meeting documented attendees in the crowd beginning to shout at one speaker as a board member threatened to remove people who were shouting.

SALEM, Ore. — The Salem-Keizer School Board meeting on Tuesday night started like any other, but quickly became heated as people brought up hot-button topics, like school resource officers, carrying concealed guns on campus and LGBTQIA+ issues.

Early in the public comment period, a woman said she and other parents had concerns about books that are available to students in the library related to what she believed to be inaccurate portrayals of history as well as an LBTQIA+ book she said was “nothing short of cartoon pornography.”

Some people in the audience felt her comments constituted hate speech. A recording of the board meeting documented attendees in the crowd beginning to shout at the woman as a board member threatened to remove people who were shouting.

“They were yelling at her that she was a white supremacist and a racist and nobody was asked to leave and it just continued. It was just craziness,” said one parent who was at the meeting.

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The parent KGW spoke with over the phone was so uncomfortable with how the meeting unfolded that she felt unsafe being on camera for a Zoom interview or sharing her name publicly. She said after the meeting, people affiliated with the group Latinos Unidos Siempre, or LUS, followed her and other parents to their cars. LUS is a youth activist group in Salem.

KGW reached out to LUS via email and by phone and were told someone would call back. At the time of this article, KGW has not received a call.

“It was just very intimidating. They followed us out to the cars after the meeting and were taking pictures of our license plates. It was just really scary and just nothing that I’ve ever experienced before,” she said.

Another man who also attended the meeting emailed KGW and said that when he was leaving the meeting he felt threatened as he was followed and called a transphobe, racist, and that he didn’t “belong here.”

As the board meeting continued, students with LUS also made public comments — with some saying they didn’t feel safe sharing their last names publicly.

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“I refuse to say any more information about myself due to the very noticeable and visible white supremacy here at this moment,” said one student.

Another student, who identified their pronouns as “they/them,” also said they would not release more information than their first name.

“I will not be saying any more information about myself due to the fact there are white supremacists on this school board and watching this meeting,” they said.

“When we come here to talk about these legitimate issues of hate speech, it is not divisive speech. We are talking about our realities as youth in this district,” said the same student.

People with LUS spoke about the experiences of BIPOC students, from traumatic interactions with police to LGBTQIA+ issues.

The board chair, Ashley Carson Cottingham, said a number of groups were represented at the meeting and the board tries their best to make sure people feel safe and heard.

“We know there are a lot of divergent views in our community, especially around race and our students identifying as LGBTQIA+. So I think what the board tries to do is welcome as many perspectives as possible,” said Carson Cottingham.

She said after Tuesday’s board meeting, and after every board meeting, there will be a review.

“We will be reviewing everything that we learned about what happened Tuesday night and try to come up with solutions to make sure that the next meeting is better and the one beyond that is even better,” Carson Cottingham said.

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But it may be too late for some parents, some of whom are wary of coming back.

“I don't know if I want to go back to one [a board meeting] to be honest,” said the parent who spoke with KGW on the phone.

The parent who spoke to KGW said she has a trans child and about half of her family is Hispanic, so she said she wants a lot of the same things as a number of groups that attended the board meeting. However, she said that because she wants more discipline at school due to her child getting bullied, she was lumped into the group that was getting called racist and white supremacists.

A couple board members were also singled out. Marty Heyen was called transphobic and Danielle Bethell, who is also a Marion County Commissioner, was called a white supremacist.

KGW reached out to both of them. In a statement Heyen said, “The false accusations made by this group monthly for years now take time and energy away from what we should be doing, supporting all the children and families we serve.”

Bethell also sent a statement saying in part, “Our board should model constructive dialogue for our community, showing how we can have differences and still treat others with respect. The mere fact that name calling is allowed when one does not agree on policy with another is not helpful.”

In addition, Bethell advocated for having a dialogue and seeking to understand different perspectives.

"While through these efforts we may still maintain our positions, at least we’d be doing so from a more informed point of view.”

When asked why she thought she was being called a white supremacist, Bethell could not point to a specific policy stance or issue. Rather, she said she thought it had more to do with her Republican party affiliation.

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