Salem-Keizer board cancels meeting over concerns of clashes between protesters

Osvaldo Avila, Salem-Keizer School Board director, is sworn in at a July 13, 2021 meeting. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Leaders of the Salem-Keizer School Board cancelled a scheduled Aug. 24 meeting after a warning from the district’s security director that planned protests and counterprotests could turn violent, board Chair Osvaldo Avila said.

Avila and Vice Chair Ashley Carson Cottingham announced the cancellation Wednesday, saying it was due to “ongoing public safety concerns in our community.” 

The board had been scheduled to visit Chemeketa Community College for a work session to visit the college’s new agricultural complex and learn about the redesign of the district’s alternative education program through a partnership with the college.

But Avila said the district’s security team saw posts on social media that raised concerns the meeting might draw anti-mask protesters and counter protesters, leading to the type of street clashes Salem has seen outside the Capitol and in other venues over the past year.

“We don’t have the capacity to be able to mitigate a situation,” Avila said, referring to the district’s security workforce.

Avila said he and Carson Cottingham discussed the situation with Superintendent Christy Perry and Chris Baldridge, the district’s director of safety and risk management, before deciding to cancel the meeting.

The decision came after a heated school board meeting on Aug. 10 where Avila twice stopped public testimony to issue warnings about civility and decorum as comments grew heated about a statewide mandate that students wear masks in schools in the fall. 

A large group of parents opposed to masking in schools attended the meeting to speak against the policy, which was implemented by Gov. Kate Brown, while a group of students and young people spoke in favor of requiring masks.

The first time, Avila spoke after a young woman testified objecting to the board “letting these white people in (to the meeting) without their masks.” The meeting took place three days before a statewide mask mandate went into effect.

The second time, Avila called a recess after another commenter referred to themselves with gender neutral pronouns, causing a small outburst in the audience. Avila told Salem Reporter he didn’t hear what audience members said, but several witnesses told him audience members directed transphobic comments at the speaker.

“We are seeing a continual call in our community to create disruption to our board and our schools with divisiveness that has no place in the lives of our students. At our last board meeting, we witnessed disrespect, racial and transphobic comments, and a disregard for health and safety protocols. We believe our communities of Salem and Keizer are better than this, and board leadership does not want any person to be in an environment where they will not feel safe or welcome,” Avila and Carson Cottingham said in a statement announcing the meeting cancellation.

Avila said the community needs to focus on safely returning kids to full-time school in-person.

“Some adults, by their words and actions, are teaching children to be irresponsible during a global health pandemic, disrespecting the process of democracy through grossly defiant statements and actions that will have lasting effects. Instead, we should create an environment where children learn to participate civically and economically as they move into adulthood,” he said in a statement Thursday.