Board, parents seek answers about how Portland middle school protests went awry

·5 min read

May 18—Parents and district leadership expressed concern about allegations of discrimination at Portland's Lincoln and Lyman Moore middle schools and how the student-led protests regarding these matters at the two schools Friday resulted in some students being locked out of school.

"It pains me to acknowledge that after six years where we have attempted to put equity at the center of our efforts, the experiences of our students do not reflect that focus," Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana said at the board of education meeting Tuesday night. "It's deeply humbling and disturbing."

Around 200 students gathered at Lincoln and Lyman Moore middle schools Friday morning to protest racism, sexism, ableism and other forms of discrimination that they said occur regularly at their schools. The students said they came out to protest because they felt their previous complaints to school leadership and faculty about these issues had been ignored.

The protests were sanctioned by the schools and the district. But the Lincoln protest went awry when some students declined to return to class after the time the school had allotted for them to protest came to a close and then students were told they could not go back inside the building. It is not clear who told students they could not return.

A throng of students then left school property and marched a bit over a quarter mile to Deering High School. Upon returning to Lincoln, students mingled outside, holding up posters that said "we will not be silenced," and "Black Lives Matter," and buying water and snacks from a nearby store. Faculty, standing on the lawn and the sidewalk in front of Lincoln, seemed unsure of what to do. Multiple teachers and administrators declined to be interviewed.

PARENT HAS QUESTIONS

"I am here because I am a Lincoln parent and my daughter was one of the students who participated in the protest there on Friday and was not allowed back in the building for the rest of the school day," said Jessica Morino, who joined the meeting via Zoom. Morino asked who told students they could not enter the building, how that decision was communicated to staff, who from the central district office was there and why parents weren't told until around 1 p.m. that their students were not in school. Students were originally supposed to return to class around 9:30 a.m.

"I'm hoping the district is going to look more into exactly what happened Friday so we can get a full and accurate picture," she said. She also said that many Lincoln staff welcomed students back to school on Tuesday and engaged in "meaningful dialogue."

"And I really do appreciate that," she said. "So thank you."

Lincoln Middle School Principal Robyn Bailey requested a leave of absence Monday in the wake of the protests. She had come under fire last fall for an email she wrote to city officials criticizing social media posts by women of color on the Portland Charter Commission. Last year, Botana promoted Bailey from assistant principal at Lincoln Middle School to interim principal.

Board members Abusana "Micky" Bondo and Nyalat Biliew spoke up and had questions for the superintendent about Friday's events.

"I just really want to understand clearly what happened," Bondo said. She said that it seemed to her that this frustration has been building for years. "I want this to be a wake-up call," she said. "I'm taking this really seriously to make sure that adults, teachers and students really start feeling cultural inclusion that each of the students belongs to the system."

Bondo also said the district might need to continue to work on its system for students to come forward with complaints and concerns of harassment.

"Portland Public Schools' Students Speak Up," is a webpage for district community members to read about and understand the district's harassment and discrimination policy, find out what resources are available and report incidents.

Board member Biliew said she has felt left in the dark on the whole issue. She said she didn't have a lot of information before the board meeting and questioned why. Board Chair Emily Figdor said she had tried to reach Biliew on the phone, to which Biliew asked why the board couldn't have received more information in an email.

BOTANA 'STILL PROCESSING' PROTESTS

Botana said that he was holding off on providing information because he was "still processing" what occurred.

"I don't have a clear line of sight into what happened," he said.

Botana did, however, share information about the protests including how they came about.

According to Botana the district first heard around two weeks ago that Lyman Moore students wanted to protest to raise awareness about instances of prejudice. Botana said he worked with the administration to "encourage alternatives to the protest that would recognize and build on the convergence of interests and bring visibility to these issues." But that once it became clear that the students would be protesting, they communicated to parents about the plans and the parameters for the protests, including that students who did not return to class after the protest would be marked absent.

Botana said at Tuesday's meeting that the district had communicated to parents before the protest that if students did not return to class after the protest they would only be allowed to return to school if their parent communicated with the school that they wanted their child to return.

An email that Bailey sent to parents prior to the protest said that if students refused to return to class at 9:25 a.m. after the protest they would be marked absent and their parents would be contacted, but did not say that their parents would have to contact the school for them to be allowed to return. It is unclear if there were other communications from the school or the district that outlined that policy.

Botana said he had spoken to Figdor about looking further into the protest and about what the district needs to do in response. There is a workshop planned for June 7 to further discuss the protest and the issues of discrimination that compelled the students to hold it.