Lots of talk, little action on police, racism in schools

On March 30, during a Salem-Keizer board meeting, Paul Kyllo (top center) holding a mask of former Portland Trail Blazer player Cliff Robinson over his face. The video resurfaced on social media this week, which resulted in an outcry from community members requesting that Kyllo resign from his position. (Submitted).

With the protests spread across the country regarding police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the Salem-Keizer School Board met virtually on Tuesday, June 23 in a work session that involved a conversation which was planned to be heavily focused on racism and the use of School Resource Officers (SRO) at Salem-Keizer Public Schools (SKPS). 

Even though the board has been meeting virtually over the last three months due to COVID-19, this gathering was vastly different than any of the ones that this board has experienced. 

More than 180 people signed up for public testimony. While only a small percentage (just under two dozen) were able to share publicly during the one-hour time slot given for comment, the majority of people who got the opportunity to share advocated for the removal of SROs from Salem-Keizer schools and the resignations of board members Paul Kyllo and Marty Heyen.

The public outcry in regards to Kyllo stems from a virtual board meeting on March 30 when he held up a cut up mask of former Portland Trail Blazers player Cliff Robinson over his face for the entirety of the meeting — Robinson is black and Kyllo is white.

None of the board members addressed Kyllo’s mask during the meeting, but even though his actions weren’t significantly publicized at the time, Benny Williams, the president of the Salem-Keizer NAACP, wrote to Kyllo, Heyen and SKPS Superintendent Christy Perry after the meeting seeking an apology. 

As a public apology, Kyllo wrote a letter to the editor in the Statesman Journal, which ran on April 10.

“I apologize that my choice offended anyone, and sincerely regret any discomfort my action may have caused. I apologize for my insensitivity and promise to make no such mistake again,” Kyllo said in the letter.

However, the video resurfaced on Facebook on Monday. Latinos Unidos Siempre, a local youth group, posted clips of the meeting on their Facebook page and called for the resignation of both Kyllo and Heyen. The group also alleges Heyen has ties to white supremacist organizations. The video had more than 35,000 views as of Tuesday night. 

The group also created a petition to remove regular police presence on Salem-Keizer campuses through the school resource officer program — the petition has nearly 2,500 signatures as of Tuesday, June 23.

Tension increased the morning before the meeting when fellow board member Sheronne Blasi stated in a letter to the other six board members that she would like to see Heyen removed from her position — Blasi joined the March 30 meeting by phone and didn’t see Kyllo holding up the mask.

Blasi criticized Heyen for not speaking on the mask incident and cited a repeated failure of leadership — Heyen is the chairperson of the board.

“Over the last year, and quite frankly during your tenure on the board, you have failed repeatedly to properly represent all of our students and families in an equal and equitable manner,” Blasi wrote in a letter she shared with board members. 

Heyen responded to the multiple levels of criticism early in the meeting.

“My pain is reactionary to the attacks toward me that feel unfair and unfounded,” Heyen said. “I am not or have ever been affiliated with any group who believes in the oppression of people of color.”

Heyen also offered an apology to those who were offended by Kyllo’s actions.

“We have a lot of work to do. We all acknowledge that. And I’m sorry if our delay in speaking has offended you. That was not our intention,” Heyen said

Perry followed with a passionate speech where she challenged her supervisors who, in her estimation, have fallen short in their learning about equity and have discounted the experiences of students of color. 

“Over the past week, as we’ve met with students from our district who have experienced real traumas in our classrooms because of racism, I’ve shared that my ability to keep the equity work moving means I must keep the real issues out of the board room. That goes against the very principles that I’ve been sharing with my staff. I am not being actively antiracist. Instead, I tell my team that we are going to show up the next day after a board meeting to do what we’re here for — the right things for kids,” Perry said. “Tonight, the right thing for our students is to use my position of power to do what’s right for all of our kids — our transgender students, our Black students, our queer students, our Latinx students, our Indigenous students, our students with disabilities, our Micronesian students, our immigrant students and every other child that comes through our doors. 

“And to all of those who are saying, “It’s about time!” I agree. And I’m truly sorry. This moment is a long-time coming, and I’m committed to getting it right. And there are thousands of educators in Salem-Keizer who share that commitment along with me.”

Vice chairperson Jesse Lippold also said that the board collectively needed to improve. Similar to Heyen, Lippold also apologized in regard to the March 30 incident.

“I just want all of our kids to feel like this is a place where they can feel safe and learn and grow … And I think we owe that to our community, to not have are own agendas but instead focus on what is best for kids. That is what I try to come to each meeting with. I’m going to work and continue to try and get better at,” Lippold said.

“For the actions back in March, I hope that anyone who was offended could find it in their heart to forgive me and know that I would never intentionally hurt anyone or cause offense to people because I have nothing but love and compassion for our students and for people of color.”

The public comments began more than an hour into the meeting, many of which were critical of the board’s past actions.

“Year after year, students have been present at board meetings to express their concerns, and yet, time and time again, you have failed to listen to them,” one caller said. “Not only have you failed to listen to them … you have invalidated their experiences and undermined their presence at meetings. Shame on you.”

While the board sat and listened to public comments of disapproval, most were silent throughout. However, Heyen did get defensive in one instance after a caller accused her of being a part of the “three percenters” — which is a far-right militia group — and saying that she was a white supremacist.

“I hope Ronnie is listening, who is a very black person and member of the three percenters. I’m sure he will be surprised to find out he is a white supremacist,” Heyen said.

There were students that even called in that claimed that they would not be returning to school if Kyllo and Heyen remained on the board.

Moving forward, the board plans to have dialogue this summer with community members about having police in schools. However, there was no agreement on a particular process for community engagement before school begins in the fall.