By a 4 to 3 vote, the Grants Pass School Board reinstated two North Middle School educators who push back against transgender rights. Assistant principal Rachel Damiano and teacher Katie Medart were terminated after a consultant found they violated school policy by using district resources promoting their political campaign against transgender rights called “I Resolve.”(study Part 1 https://cdn.kobi5.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/GP-Dist.-7-Narrative-Report-Pt.-I-5-2021_Redacted.pdf?x14758 Part 2 https://cdn.kobi5.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/GP-Dist.-7-Narrative-Report-Pt.-II-5-2021_Redacted.pdf?x14758)
Board member Cliff Kuhlman, who voted to terminate the two educators in July, reversed his vote and went along with board members Gary Richardson, Todd Neville and Cassie Wilkins, who all voted to retain Damiano and Medart the first time around. Board members Debbie Brownell, Brian DeLaGrange and Chair Scott Nelson voted to sustain the termination. Superintendent Kirk Kolb, who recommended the termination based on the consultant’s findings, said he will leave the district at the end of this school year.
Josephine County Democrats were disappointed in the November 9 vote. Although the district released a statement saying, “we all belong in the district,” reinstating the two educators, after it was clear they violated school policy and stirred up controversy in the community, hurt students. Tuesday’s vote was “heartbreaking” according to one member of the Grants Pass High School’s Pride Club. A parent said the reinstatement “sets a dangerous precedent for future termination decisions. Will the school board continue to look the other direction when teachers and/or staff violate district policy and intentionally rally against established equity policies and procedures? Will diversity, equity and inclusion really be a foundational component of what we do in D7? Many of us – staff, teachers and students are questioning this decision and losing confidence in our local board.”
During Tuesday evening’s meeting, Josephine County Democrats expressed fear that school boards are increasingly targeted by right-wing activists making outrageous claims reinforced by bad behavior. Democratic Party of Oregon Chair KC Hansen was present at the meeting through Zoom. She said there has always been an ongoing range of subject matter that makes the right wing “clutch its pearls” and reminded people of the Tea Party’s efforts during the Obama administration. She said, like the Tea Party, the current outrage over critical race theory, mask and vaccine mandates is an organized effort backed by powerful groups with money. But now partisanship escalation goes beyond just focusing on schools and school board issues. There’s so much money and so many heavy hitters involved that the messaging is even more widely distributed and supported and all those right-wing activists showing up at school board meetings…they have the backing of powerful organizations just like that “grass roots” Tea Party movement 12 years ago that started with the Koch brothers. She said this time they put out a “Bible” on how to be an activist that tells how to use social media and pressure elected officials.
“They even suggest the messages to paint on signs,” she said. “They also use intimidation tactics and sometimes violence, with extremists showing up to disrupt meetings and bully anyone not on their side including elected officials, parents and even kids testifying at meetings. Their tactics are to dissuade good and thoughtful folks, Democrats, from continuing their service on boards or even to show up at meetings. It’s part of the plan. So how do we fight back? We get out there and support our good local board members. We challenge those who are off-base, not like the right-wing crazies are challenging, but we hold them accountable and use some of their tactics, like using social media and writing letters, do a sign-waving event…those same tactics can be used for good. Small things work, even a conversation with a friend, neighbor or coworker can never be underestimated. Politics is about two basic things: communication and relationships.”
Hansen said she is currently working on a project to connect like-minded school board members. Around the state progressive school board members aren’t well connected. There is connection with the Oregon School Boards Association, but since so many members come from small rural areas it leans conservative. Hansen’s effort is starting to take off, she said, and local Democrats, who know their school board members, can talk to them about this connection to give them support against the onslaught of this right-wing effort to discourage them.”
Questions to Hansen revolved around fighting back without using bad behavior to do it.
“We’re not what they are and never will be,” she said, but organization, strong messaging, showing up to push back on outrageous claims, using social media, letters to elected officials, the tactics they use behind the scenes, these are all things we can do just as well. Hansen acknowledged Democrats in Southern Oregon have an uphill battle because people here have been raised with right-wing media, a media with no compunction about lying.
Democrats also expressed fear about attending meetings where physical violence and even guns might be used. Hansen, and others, pointed out the noise and bad behavior gets attention but it’s usually just a few who are doing this, and if a group of people supporting the other side shows up it dilutes their message.
“Messaging and marketing is something I’ve talked about for years,” said Hansen. “Get that elevator speech, that bumper sticker and repeat it over.” For example, she said we can talk about being the party that protects kids. Child tax credits, pre-k education, free community college…who does that? Democrats!”
Chair Dorothy Yetter asked the high school student present “what can we do to support you?”
“Keep the focus on how students feel, attend board meetings on our behalf because we have jobs and school and can’t always be there, help us keep a voice on the issues, those are the big things,” she said.
Constance Palaia and Jean Mount echoed those concerns, saying the rights of the teachers involved in I Resolve have been at the forefront but the hurt done to students hasn’t been discussed enough.
But how do you talk to people…how do you describe a rainbow to people who only see in black and white, asked Tracy Thompson. Hansen said the best explanation she’s seen is a video and shared the link. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ur7pHRRKhV4 .
Constance, who, with Dorothy, meets with a group of students regularly to listen to their concerns, said we need to acknowledge our education system is flawed, support divergent students and recognize the harm that occurs when they are left out and voiceless, we need to support educators who teach hard truths and celebrate diversity while emphasizing this isn’t about pitting one group against another, it’s a recognition that when we all gain we each gain.