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Salem-Keizer school board meetings go virtual again after tension between groups

Superintendent Christy Perry said school board meetings will remain online until both groups find a way to be civil.

SALEM, Ore. — School boards across the country have become hotbeds of division with parents and community members attending meetings and butting heads over topics like politics, race and LGBTQ+ issues.

Leaders of the Salem-Keizer School District this week reverted back to virtual school board meetings after tension during last month's in-person board meeting led to threatening behavior between two groups. 

"The crowd was literally split up on two sides. There was some chirping or snarky comments or noises back and forth, and you could feel the tension that existed between the two sides," said Isaac McDonald, a senior in the district. 

"It's sad because I know students who do a better job than some of the stuff that I've seen in boardrooms. And so it's unfortunate that that's the example that's sometimes set to students," said fellow senior Raylin Brennan. 

RELATED: Tensions run high at Salem-Keizer School Board meeting

Brennan and McDonald are student advisors to the school board who advocate for their fellow students. Both were disappointed in the behavior exhibited at last month's board meeting, where a number of people filed complaints saying they felt unsafe.

"What we're really seeing is two sides, two sides of ideological issues. And it's coming into the boardroom and public comment, but also ... we're seeing threats of violence online. We're seeing escalation in the parking lot," said Superintendent Christy Perry.

Perry said the tension poses a safety risk for everyone attending meetings, which is why she decided to go back to streaming the meetings online.

"This, I think, is my 33rd year. It's my 19th year as an Oregon superintendent and always you have a little element of the politics," said Perry.

"I've never had it to this extreme and it's really hurtful and damaging to the kids we serve, and that breaks my heart," she said.

School district security launched an investigation into August's board meeting and found that two groups were responsible for the escalated tension — Latinos Unidos Siempre and Salem-Keizer We Stand Together. 

The report found some attendees were followed out to their cars and screamed at, or called racists and white supremacists. It also indicated that the beginning of the conflict began when one person started taking photos of meeting attendees outside.

"There was really poor adult behavior on both sides. Both sides did things that incited the other side," said Perry. "Every single elected official plus myself, plus my staff, plus our students all feel a sense of lack of safety."

There were other reports including one that involved a person who was seen parking nearby, covering their license plate and acting suspiciously as they transferred items in and out of a backpack in their car. In another case, a person was fearful that they would be followed to their home.

RELATED: Beaverton School District weighs benefits of school resource officers

Perry said school board meetings will remain online until adults supporting both groups find a way to be civil.

"We have lots of people in our community that know how to come to common ground. And where is the space for that? Will that ever be in a public board meeting? I don't know," said Perry. 

Both Brennan and McDonald attended the virtual school board meeting this week and said it seems conversations were more productive without disruptions from community members. 

McDonald said he thinks of school as a more sacred space where kids are learning. Both he and Brennan hope adults can model the problem-solving behavior students are being taught in schools.

"Some of the things that I'm learning right now in school about how do we see each other, how do we talk through difficult issues? It just seems kind of like opposite, like why are we teaching these things to our young kids but then not modeling for them when we're speaking on their behalf," said McDonald.

The move back to virtual meetings comes amid other challenges for the district. 

The district is searching for a new superintendent as Perry plans to retire at the end of the school year. There is also a recall effort underway to boot three board members who voted in support of prohibiting concealed guns on school grounds and removing school resource officers. All three were elected in 2021.

This kind of conflict at the school board level is not unique to Salem-Keizer. Discord has played out at other school board meetings locally and across the country.

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