A staff member at an elementary school in Newberg, Oregon, came to work on Friday in blackface and allegedly claimed she was portraying Rosa Parks as part of a protest against a vaccine mandate for school staff.
Details of the incident at Mabel Rush Elementary School were relayed to The Newberg Graphic by an unnamed staff member, who said that Lauren Pefferle, a special education assistant, had used iodine to darken her face and called herself Rosa Parks while protesting mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations for school staff in Oregon.
A spokesperson for the school district declined to comment on the motivation of the staff member to The Daily Beast, but confirmed that an employee had worn blackface, which was “unacceptable.”
“Our administration has, and will continue to implement, equity training for our staff,” Gregg Koskela, communications coordinator and bond manager for Newberg Public Schools, told The Daily Beast in an email. “We take this [incident] seriously and will do everything possible to create a safe environment that minimizes harm.”
Shortly after Pefferle showed up in blackface, she was put on administrative leave, according to the school district. Pefferle did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
In a statement on Monday, Newberg Public Schools insisted the district condemned “all expressions of racism.”
“Last Friday, one of our employees reported for work in Blackface. The employee was removed from the location, and HR has placed the employee on administrative leave,” the statement said.
The school district vowed to take appropriate action to address incidents that run counter to its goal of creating a “safe and welcoming environment in our schools that is free from bullying, and reduces mental, emotional, and physical harm.”
“Blackface has no place in our schools, and we are committed to the work of created spaces where every student belongs as we move forward together in our mission of educating students,” the statement said.
But the blackface debacle comes after a string of race-related scandals in the school district.
Last week, parents were alerted that a group of students at Newberg High School were involved in a group chat on Snapchat called “Slave Trade,” which included photos of Black students and discussions about how much they’d pay for their classmates in a slave auction. Members in the chat also penned comments like, “All Blacks should die” and “Let's have another Holocaust,” according to KGW8.
“My heart is so broken for these kids who have gotten the message that they are not even seen as human by some of their fellow students,” Heidi Pender, the mother of a Black student at the school, told the outlet. “To imagine your own child being talked about as if they were subhuman slaves to be sold by other students, it made me feel like I was going to throw up.”
Addressing the incident in a letter to the families last week, Superintendent Joe Morelock acknowledged the district had become a magnet for scandal in the news and said he wanted “to make it clear that racist and bullying behavior has no place in our schools or community.” Morelock also said in the letter that the social media incident would be investigated and he ensured “support for all students negatively affected by this and other bullying behavior.”
In August, the district’s board had voted in favor of an order which directs the superintendent to ban the Pride flag and Black Lives Matter logo, as well as “political symbols,” from facilities.
Although the ban won initial approval in a 4-3 vote, the rule, called the “Ensuring Safe Environments to Learn” policy, has not yet been enacted. It could face a second reading and potential approval during a special board meeting next week, according to a board meeting brief.
The board’s vice chair, Brian Shannon, has been central to efforts pushing back on how issues of race are handled at Newberg Public Schools.
In July, he called for the revision of language in the district’s “Every Student Belongs” policy, which he said had emerged at a “very tumultuous time.”
The rule was created as part of a commitment to building an environment “free from discrimination or harassment” in Oregon schools by banning the display of hate symbols, including the Confederate flag, the noose, and the swastika in school programs and school-sponsored activities. It was adopted in the wake of a string of high-profile police killings of Black people last year.
Shannon has insisted that since things have “calmed down,” he has been in talks with people from the community who shared a view that the policy “had some language that concerned a lot of people.”
Shannon has since been the target of a recall effort that includes Newberg School District parents, students, alumni, and community members.
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