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'It's a symbol of pervasive racism': Sandy High School students seek ban of Confederate flag

Students have started an online petition to ban the Confederate flag, which they say has a large presence at Sandy High School.

SANDY, Oregon — The Confederate flag is part of America's history. But like historical monuments getting torn down across the U.S. because they honor former slave owners, many believe the Confederate flag doesn't have place. In Sandy, a group of students believes, at the very least, the Confederate flag should no longer have a place in their school.

“I feel that no student of color will ever feel safe in a school where that flag can fly,” said Sandy High School senior Josiah Rothwell. “It's a symbol of pervasive racism, enslavement of Black lives, rape and murder.”

Rothwell is Associated Student Body President at Sandy High School. This summer, he teamed up with classmates to form SAFE, which stands for Students Advocating For Equality. They set several goals including getting the Oregon Trail School District’s Board of Directors to ban the Confederate flag from its schools, other than for teaching purposes.

“At least once a day I will see someone wearing a Confederate flag on a sweatshirt or a hat,” said Sandy senior and SAFE member Jake Billard. 

He said examples of racism at Sandy go well beyond the flag.

“I see white students constantly hurling racial slurs and other slurs at people down the halls,” said Billard. “People who are simply minding their own business.”

To that end, SAFE members are asking the school district to adopt stronger disciplinary policies against racist behavior. They’re also asking the district to implement a Diversity Student Officer and a Staff Officer to make sure students of color have a role in leadership. Their fourth goal is ensuring teachers more thoroughly educate students on Oregon’s history of racism.

“This issue of racism within Sandy goes largely unaddressed because we have such a low population of people of color,” said Sandy senior and SAFE member, Molly Izer. “But we shouldn't simply ignore an issue because the demographic it affects is lower.”

Watch: Racism rooted in Oregon's history

Izer and her fellow SAFE members launched an online petition outlining SAFE’s goals. By Friday night, more than 5,000 people had signed it. Students also held an anti-racism rally in downtown Sandy hoping to engage the community. They’re planning a second rally on July 25 at Sandy’s Centennial Plaza from 3-6 p.m.

“We've seen a lot of unity from the community but also a lot of backlash,” said Izer. “I think a lot of this issue is going to revolve around a cultural change when it comes to the student body and our community.”

School Board Chair Randy Carmony told KGW via email that the board had scheduled a virtual workshop later this month to review its policies around racism and bullying. He declined to comment on the SAFE's efforts until after the workshop and a full board discussion. He said the board invited students to submit their materials for public comment. Given their goals, the students said they had hoped to be invited to participate in the workshop.

“They need to give us a louder voice, starting now,” said Rothwell.

As the new school year approaches there are many unknowns, but Rothwell feels certain about one thing.

“This has been a fight for years and it gets shut down every year but it won't get past us,” said Rothwell. “We're not going to stop fighting; whatever it takes until this flag is banned.”

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