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Medford School Board passes 'Every Student Belongs' policy

The Medford School Board passed an “Every Student Belongs” policy Thursday that prohibits “bias incidents” and the use or display of symbols of hate, including “but not limited to” the noose, the Confederate flag, the swastika and “Ku Klux Klan symbology and emblems” on district grounds or in any district- or school-sponsored program, service, school or activity.

“Bias incidents” are defined in the policy as “a person’s hostile expression of animus toward another person, relating to the other person’s perceived race, color, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability or national origin, of which criminal investigation or prosecution is impossible or inappropriate.”

The policy also includes a four-step “bias incident complaint procedure” that details what happens after complaints are brought to the bias incident coordinator, who will “use their best efforts to determine an outcome within 10 school days of receiving the complaint.”

Every Oregon school district, public charter school, school for the deaf and education service district has been mandated by the state Board of Education to adopt a similar policy on or before Jan. 1. Medford’s passed with a 7-0 vote during Thursday night’s board meeting, and afterward MSD Communications Coordinator Natalie Hurd said the policy’s impact will be far-reaching.

“This is huge; it’s historic,” Hurd said Friday. “To quote (board member) Cynthia Wright, it’s sad that we need this, but it’s reality. And our students have experienced hate and discrimination based on race and sexual orientation and gender identity and other things, and these hate symbols have no place in our schools. Every student deserves a right to an education and to feel safe and to be safe at school, so this policy is a huge step in the right direction.”

The inclusion of the phrase “but not limited to” and the addition of the Ku Klux Klan symbology and emblems to the list of banned symbols was a source of debate during the previous school board meeting Dec. 3 and Thursday’s meeting, but both ultimately gained unanimous approval by the board.

The KKK symbology was a late addition whose inclusion was advocated by Tiffany Beach, a Black Alliance Social Empowerment (BASE) member who helped the district write the policy and spoke about its significance during the public comments portion of the meeting.

Beach has two daughters in the Medford School District and both have dealt with racial harassment in classrooms and on playgrounds, she said, and their “strength and maturity” made it possible for Beach to come to the board “with outrage and ask if we can come together as a community.”

“I can seriously say that ever since my daughter Tatum started school in kindergarten here,” Beach said, “there has been an experience every single year, and every single year I keep on telling her to hold her head high, we’ll continue to fight by having conversations with respect and doing the work that is needed to make the difference.”

Regarding the question of including KKK symbology in the final draft of the policy, Beach noted the history of white supremacy in Southern Oregon during a heartfelt plea.

“For black and brown folks,” she said, “that’s an intimate threat to our lives, to our children. It’s fear. Do you understand? It’s fear.”

Local lawyer Susan Krant also addressed the inclusion of “but not limited to” in the policy in her own public comment, and put the onus on the board to step up to the plate.

“If you only limit it to one or two symbols that you were told by the state could be problematic, you’re not fulfilling your duty as a board,” Krant said. “All you’re doing is pushing paper and checking a box. I think that you’re all better than that, you’re smarter than that, and you know that in this valley particularly we need so much more to make black, brown and every other color of student under the sun feel welcomed and feel protected. You are the leaders of the school district. If you can’t call KKK wrong, offensive, bullying and hateful, who else in this valley could?”

After the public comments were complete the board discussed the addition of the KKK symbology and later the policy itself before voting through both.

Board member Jim Horner had reservations about including the phrase “but not limited to” during the previous board meeting and brought it up again Thursday, noting that the district could be on shaky ground legally. It’s a slippery slope, he said.

“If we’re going to start adding in,” Horner added, “how about Antifa? Does anyone want to defend that one? They have symbols, they have shirts, they have stuff that they put out. We could say the same thing.”

Hurd countered by trying to bring the focus back to the symbols that were “brought to the (Oregon Department of Education) by the students in Oregon, in which KKK was included in the discussion at the state level by students.” The symbols that have been used to intimidate students, she added, were those that are associated with white supremacist groups.

Superintendent Bret Champion then jumped in to explain why he felt the policy should remain as is.

“I just want to go on record as saying I disagree, Jim, in terms of the First Amendment right is not the most important part,” Champion said. “The most important part is student safety, and the evils of hate have been brought forward as things that cause our students to feel unsafe. We literally heard a story tonight from a student who said that.”

According to the policy, once the bias incident coordinator has received a complaint, they will prioritize the safety and well-being of all persons impacted and commit to “taking immediate action.” Redirection procedures include education, “procedural components to ensure the safety, healing and agency of those impacted by hate;” “accountability and transformation for people who cause harm” and “transformation of the conditions that perpetuated the harm.”

The bias incident coordinator’s decision may be appealed to the superintendent. The decision of the superintendent or “designee” may also be appealed to the school board within five days.

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Members of the Medford School Board discuss the “Every Student Belongs” policy Thursday. The measure passed unanimously.