The mother of four stood up to address the Crook County School Board, frustrated, her eyes wide.
She told the board she had sold her house in Bend and moved to Crook County because of policies in Bend-La Pine Schools, whose officials she described as “mask Nazis.”
Now, on a summer night in a Crook County High School auditorium filled with parents like herself, Calista Songstad said her four sons would be homeschooled because she could not trust the Crook County School District either.
Other parents had told her their kids were taught that math is racist, she told the board. And teachers had told her they are being taught to teach critical race theory, but told to call it other names so parents would not find out.
“So we’re going to find out who’s good and who’s not,” Songstad said. “People will be replaced if they have ill intentions toward our children because those are our kids. And I don’t co-parent with anybody but my husband.”
It was the kind of emotion unleashed a lot this summer. While July and August are typically quiet months for educators, school board meetings this summer have become verbal battlefields. Across Central Oregon, parents have angrily protested mask and vaccination requirements and lesson plans related to race and gender identity.
School board meetings at Central Oregon’s largest school districts, Bend-La Pine Schools and Redmond School District, have drawn crowds of more than 200 people. Meeting spaces have moved from district offices to high school auditoriums with police presence.
During meetings, parents and others have heckled, mocked and talked over nurses, doctors, public health workers and other officials speaking to the severity of Oregon’s surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. Parents have threatened to pull their kids out of school over mask requirements and the curriculum.
Some have characterized the struggle as good versus evil.
The Bend-La Pine School Board, which has embraced protective measures against the coronavirus as well as initiatives promoting diversity, equity and inclusion, has been met with vitriol. The board’s newest members, who were backed by Democrats in the May election, were sworn in during a meeting in July that drew over 100 angry protesters.
Disruptions from parents and political opponents led board members and district leaders to pause and walk out of the room during two meetings over the past month.
Superintendent Steve Cook, who started at Bend-La Pine Schools in July, said that over his 33-year career in schools, unrest has never been this intense or lasted this long.
“What the conversations have come back to are conflicting values, and that’s why this is such a challenge,” Cook said. “Public schools were built for the masses ... and so when you’re trying to serve the masses, you’ve got people with tremendously different values sending their kids to the schools. And many times those values play out in elections. Values drive politics, and I think that’s part of what we’re feeling.”
Gov. Kate Brown lifted most state restrictions for the virus in late June after nearly 70% of adults were at least partially vaccinated. Over the past month the governor has reinstituted indoor and outdoor mask mandates and is requiring all K-12 staff and health care workers to get vaccinated against the virus. Since the mandates, rhetoric at school board meetings has become noticeably more militant.
Christopher Nichols, a history professor and the director of the Center for the Humanities at Oregon State University, said that while the political battles at school boards are exceptional because of the pandemic, battles over education have taken place about every generation.
There have been clashes over school prayer, teaching core concepts of human evolution, saying the Pledge of Allegiance and desegregation.
He said that similarly to the fight over teaching the theory of evolution in schools, critical race theory is a body of knowledge not taught in K-12 schools. However, like the theory of evolution in 1925, some of critical race theory’s core assumptions and orientations are introduced.
“Schools and the future generation are where our most important cultural values and cultural battles are located,” Nichols said. “It shouldn’t surprise us that we’re seeing that today.”
Nichols, who studies the historical parallels of the coronavirus pandemic and 1918 flu pandemic, said most people during both pandemics abided by mandates. Most school systems in 1918 closed, he said, and people accepted the preventative measures like wearing masks and staying home.
A key difference: In 1918, people deferred to experts, but in 2021, they are getting completely different, and often contradictory sources of information from some media and social media posts, Nichols said.
“People who have their beliefs and have cherry picked a little bit of evidence really don’t have the expertise,” Nichols said. “Essentially they’re arguing beliefs, not facts. There aren’t logical arguments that can push back against beliefs or faiths.”
Some of those critical of Bend-La Pine School Board members over the past month during public comment at meetings have accused board members and district leaders of not listening or responding.
“I feel like the frustrating part is really trying to understand and say, ‘OK, we have a group of constituents. They’re not the majority, but they’re upset. How do we hear them? How do we make them feel heard?’ And it’s felt a bit like a moving target,” board Chairperson Melissa Barnes Dholakia said.
Barnes Dholakia has hosted a listening session with Marcus LeGrand, the board’s vice chair, and said she often replies to emails or proactively reaches out to people inviting them to talk and meet in person. She said that with very few exceptions people do not take her up on the offer, but they come to the meetings to speak for two minutes.
LeGrand thinks the anger is manifesting from fear that something will be taken away.
“People, when they hear diversity, they’re thinking that I want you to forget about your race, forget about your culture,” LeGrand said. “No, we’re trying to enhance what you’re trying to do. You learn about other cultures, you learn about other things and ideas. Diversity is not just color of skin. Diversity is ideas, changing norms, changing policies, changing perspective, interrupting racism when you hear it and giving the teachers the tools to be able to do that in a productive way.”
Redmond School District Superintendent Charan Cline expects the contention and disputes will continue.
“It’s hard to resolve the issue because ... it’s sort of a general anger, not really a specific problem to solve,” he said.
And the school district has to serve everyone, Cline said.
“We’re not there to push a specific point of view or a culture,” he said. “We’re there to teach kids to think critically and to look at lots of different things and discuss why they believe things. Not everybody’s interested in that.”
While the school district plans to comply with Brown’s mask and vaccination mandates for schools, the school board Wednesday voted 3-2 to approve a resolution demanding local control.
Michael Summers, who was elected in May and is the board’s vice chair, initiated a variation of the resolution during a meeting earlier this month that led a packed auditorium at Redmond High School to erupt in cheers. During the same meeting, those who supported Summers also heckled, talked over and mocked medical experts.
On Wednesday night after the resolution passed, Summers, who did not respond to request for an interview for this story, spoke to the division and contention.
“When people feel powerless, they get angry,” he said. “I think all of us from whatever side we’re on, feel powerless in a lot of ways against this and against mandates, against viruses, against different things. But I think we need to back away from assigning motives.
“I’ve been having a lot of really good, healthy discussions with people that I disagree with in a lot of ways, but I understand their points. And it’s really, really wonderful to realize that they do not have bad motives, that they are not fools.”