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Demonstration was lesson for school officials

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Protestors are held back by police during a LGBTQ+ demonstration at Grants Pass High School Tuesday. School officials are studying how to be better prepared in the future.
Grants Pass schools chief addresses what could have been done differently during the protests over two educators who got their jobs back

A day after clashes between LGBTQ+ allies and counter-protesters rocked Grants Pass High School, District 7’s superintendent said what unfolded Tuesday included some things the district did not anticipate.

Nevertheless, Kirk Kolb believes the demonstrations — which arose out of the school board’s recent decision to reinstate former North Middle School assistant principal Rachel Damiano and former science teacher Katie Medart — were a learning experience.

“In hindsight, next time we (should) over plan, over prepare and over communicate,” Kolb said in an interview.

After the school board followed his recommendation in July to fire Medhart and Damiano when they were found in violation of district policy by promoting policies regarding a student’s biological sex over their gender preference, the board reversed its decision Nov. 9.

Not long after that decision, Kolb said the district heard from high school students that they would organize a “walkout” at 1:45 p.m. Nov. 16, protesting the board’s decision and the educators’ “I Resolve” movement platform.

The students, Kolb said Wednesday, promised to return to class at 2:07 p.m., when the bell rang, and the “vast majority” did.

But what the district did not account for were the “outside presence of antagonists,” Kolb said. He was referring to religious counter-protesters who believe LGBTQ+ people are living in sin.

“I'm really disappointed in the outside influences that came in and basically took advantage of our students, who are very emotive,” Kolb said. “(The students) were there to support their peers. (The counter-protesters) became a real distraction to the purpose of why they were there.”

The Grants Pass Police Department said Wednesday that it did not have any further comment on the three arrests it made during the demonstrations and referred all questions to the Josephine County district attorney. The district attorney’s office did not immediately respond to voice messages left by the paper.

Although law enforcement officers also went to North and South middle schools Tuesday, as requested by the district, Kolb said he didn’t think there was an organizational structure in place for demonstrations to occur, and so his people “didn’t necessarily have a plan in place for that.”

“We did make the middle school administration aware of what was happening at the high school,” Kolb said, adding that, “a mass message to parents was necessary.”

That message, obtained by the Mail Tribune, was written by North Middle School Principal Tommy Blanchard at 6:15 p.m. Tuesday.

It said approximately 150 had gathered near the picnic tables at approximately 1:45 p.m., when students “spoke and chanted and then walked around around the campus” before returning where they started.

“Our admin team and campus security was on site to make sure everything was civil,” Blanchard wrote. “It was civil and free of any major issues.”

One North Middle School parent, Kiara Green, only found out about the demonstrations in the middle of the day, when her son was participating. He told her that he walked out of class because his friends were doing so, and was not correct in his understanding of what led to the original firing of the two school employees.

“Half the kids had no idea what they were there for,” Green said.

She wished the school had informed parents about the demonstration before it happened so they would have been able to choose whether their child attended.

“If it’s during school hours, we should have known about it — plain and simple,” she said. “This is not just something (the district) can say, ‘it’s OK and fly underneath us.”

Kolb said District 7 does not sponsor, condone or endorse demonstrations like the walkout Tuesday.

“However, we don't have the capacity to stop it, and therefore our goal ultimately is student safety and ... to manage it as best we can,” he said.

When future demonstrations occur, Kolb thinks the district could work to determine a location that is “free from outside influencers.”

“We believe we can accomplish that,” Kolb said.

Another idea would be to “expect the unexpected” and “over plan and over prepare.”

“We can discourage kids from leaving class all day long. Teachers are not equipped or prepared [to do that],” Kolb said. “If a student gets up and leaves, we have a whole series of communications to try to involve parents as soon as possible when it's reasonable. But when you have several hundred [of them], the logistics of identifying the students and doing that, in the immediate sense, kind of go out the window.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.