Earlier this week, in the midst of nationwide discussions and protests about racism and police brutality, Bend-La Pine School Board member Amy Tatom decided to look through her school district’s policies.
She didn’t see the words “racism” or “racist” anywhere, even in discussion of harassment and bullying. That didn’t sit well with her, and it reinforced her belief that Bend-La Pine Schools needed to reexamine and update the rules that govern its school system.
“In a time when we need to be explicitly anti-racist, that is problematic,” Tatom said. “I think it is needed and urgent to make these changes, and stop (avoiding) a word because it might make some people uncomfortable.”
Tatom, along with the six other Bend-La Pine School Board members, unanimously agreed at their Tuesday night meeting to require the district to change its rules in order to promote equity and fight racism in its schools.
The board members wrote the resolution approved Tuesday not as a meaningless platitude, but as a declaration that the school district would make changes, said board co-chair Carrie Douglass.
“We wanted to ensure that this resolution actually had some teeth to it,” Douglass said at the meeting. “This board feels like there’s been lots of listening, which is really, really important … but now, it’s time to show some real urgency, action and change.”
This resolution, like protests around the nation and in Bend, was prompted by the recent killing of George Floyd, a black man who died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes.
Tatom, reading the resolution aloud during the board meeting, said the school board stands with the black community, locally and nationwide, in condemning racism and violence towards black people.
The board plans to revise its goals and internal rules before the 2020-21 school year starts in September, to emphasize inclusion, equity and diversity, the resolution states. It will also create a new set of rules for the Bend-La Pine superintendent, ensuring the district leader take certain actions to advance equity and combat racism, Tatom read.
At least one board member will also participate in an interagency task force, with other local government agencies also participating, Tatom read.
On Wednesday, after the board meeting, Douglass explained that school board members had started talking with officials from the city of Bend and Bend Park & Recreation District to form a collaborative group tasked with fighting racism locally. This group would also include local law enforcement, she said.
“Instead of each of us starting an initiative ... it would be more powerful and efficient if we created an inter-agency collaboration and combined our budgets and willpower for this work,” Douglass said Wednesday.
This task force is still in preliminary talks, and there are no concrete details about how it will look yet, Douglass said.
The resolution also declared that the school board would keep equity and diversity in mind while reviewing the school district’s budget, Tatom read at Tuesday’s meeting.
Last week, Bend-La Pine Superintendent Shay Mikalson — who is leaving the district at the end of June — wrote a letter of his own, promising to combat racism in local schools.
Assistant Superintendent Lora Nordquist, who will become Bend-La Pine’s interim superintendent on July 1, said the district is scheduled to review its language arts curriculum this year. District staff will look into curriculum from diversity and social justice-focused groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, she said.
“It’s absolutely a legitimate criticism, and we need to get better,” Nordquist said during the meeting about Bend-La Pine’s curriculum.
When the district and school board’s policies and rules are changed to enforce anti-racism, it will be important to make sure that locals from underrepresented communities, particularly people of color, will be included in decisions, Douglass said.
“Every one of us on this call have an immense amount of privilege and power, and with great privilege comes great responsibility,” Douglass said at the meeting. “It is not our job to save our families of color, it is our job to uplift their voices and bring them to the decision making table.”
Six of the seven board members are white.
Tatom said she hopes people understand the reasons for the resolution are legitimate.
“People are going to take this the wrong way, and think it’s a politically motivated choice,” she said during the meeting. “This isn’t political. It’s the right thing to do.”