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Prejudice problem spills out of high school

Sick of stereotypes, fed-up Forest Grove students seek help from school board


NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: TRAVIS LOOSE - Forest Grove High School Junior Angie Flores reads her testimony as (L-R) school district Superintendent Yvonne Curtis, school board chairman Lonnie Winkler and board member Fred Marble listen.Angie Flores’ heart sank as she read through the index cards:

“In the hallways some of the words I hear being thrown around are nigger, beaner, faggot, cracker, gay, lesbian, bitch and stupid transgenders,” one card read. She thumbed through the others.

“I’ve heard students call multiple groups of Mexican/Latino people useless farm workers. People have called black people Dirty Monkeys or dumb nigers.” (sic)

“A lot of people always tell me that I’m stupid only because I’m Mexican or they think that I’m gonna get pregnant and drop out because I’m Mexican. All of these comments make me feel bad about myself.”

“People never (believe) my father was in the military because he’s Hispanic.”

Every card described negative incidents Forest Grove High School students had either witnessed or experienced themselves.

The hurt and anger of card after card flowed over Flores as she read them. But by the time she finished, she wasn’t just discouraged — she was fired up and ready to act.

“My American Studies teacher — Mr. Wismer — he’s always like, ‘The people have the power,’” she said. That idea kept going through her head as she thought about the index cards and her own demoralizing race-related experiences at FGHS.

It inspired Flores to gather some like-minded friends and speak out against the harassment and bias problems she says so many students have experienced — and to go beyond the school’s administrators when she felt their response wasn’t strong enough.

“A lot of us have younger siblings and we don’t want them to experience what we’ve experienced,” Flores said. “We’ve just had enough. We want change.”

She and three other students spoke to the Forest Grove School Board Monday night.

“I am here today because my peers and myself felt like we weren’t fully heard on our ideas and concerns,” Flores told the board. “Also to let you all become aware to all the shaming going on around the students.”

Leaving the comfort zone

Flores’ fire started kindling Friday, April 22, the last day of Unity through Diversity Week at Forest Grove High School. There had been a rousing assembly that morning where three students had rapped against prejudice, a teacher had challenged everyone to “stand up against hateful words and actions” and the school had started a social media campaign, #ItEndsWithMe, to halt discrimination.

Flores had listened, half-hopeful, wondering if the school community would finally get serious about addressing the constant undercurrent of discrimination so many Latinos and other minorities feel there. “I thought ‘Maybe ...’”

But afterward, heading to her next class through the crowded hallways, she heard people joking about the assembly and calling it “bulls—-.”

The school’s Equity Team had asked all the teachers to discuss race and discrimination in class that day following the assembly. Flores said the discussion in her English class was important and challenging. She remembers several white students acknowledging the racial prejudice of other white students and saying they were probably raised in an environment where they learned to stereotype different races.

“A lot of it comes from their parents,” said Flores.

The Equity Team also asked the school’s English teachers to have their students write (anonymously) on index cards about incidents of harassment or bias at the school.

Flores’ class did the index-card activity Monday morning, April 25, and her teacher read a few cards outloud at the end. Distraught at the stories, Flores asked to take some of the most disturbing ones with her to show her friends.

“Forest Grove has been like that for years,” Flores said. “But people are just scared to get out of their comfort zone and do something about it.”

By lunchtime that day, Flores had decided to start getting uncomfortable. She met with 14 other students at a cafeteria table to brainstorm an action plan. Afterward, she and Shane O’Del went to the office and requested a meeting with Principal Karen O’Neill.

Communication issues

The student group includes juniors and freshmen, with a mix of races and genders, though generally more Latinos and more girls.

Together, they developed an agenda for their upcoming meeting titled “Inequality at FGHS” and focused on bullying; student vs. student discrimination; staff vs. student discrimination; and requests.

Monday, May 2, Flores, O’Del, Madison Teefy, Jess Shepard, Maria Villanueva, Elise Unterseher and a few other students met with O’Neill and FGHS’ two assistant principals, Brian Burke and Tami Erion. Near the beginning, they say, they tried to read some index cards aloud so they could discuss the comments, but the principals stopped them.

The students immediately felt brushed off. In addition, they felt the principals kept cutting them off while they were trying to talk. When they brought up their agenda items, they felt O’Neill hurried on to the next one before the current one had been addressed.

In one inexplicable communication failure, the students say Shepard described a particularly shocking incident, which O’Neill later told the News-Times she has no memory of them talking about.Forest Grove High School students showed up to the school board meeting to speak out against racism and discrimination

In that incident, a Latina student had gone to a school counselor to talk about the classes she wanted to take and was told she should take easier classes “like your people do.”

The students hoped the principals would express concern at that kind of stereotyping or ask which counselor made the comment. Erion says she told them she wished the student had reported that incident immediately so they could have dealt with it right away.

And despite not remembering this particular exchange from the meeting, O’Neill told the News-Times later that she had learned about the incident before the meeting and had already followed up on it. Confidentiality requirements keep her from talking about any actions she might have taken, she said.

‘They had some great ideas’

O’Neill also explained that the principals stopped the students from reading the index cards because she, Erion and Burke had already seen many of the comments. They’re part of the Equity Team that solicited the comments for use at an April 29 staff professional development training on discrimination.

“Yeah, it’s shocking,” O’Neill said of the comments when talking with the News-Times Monday. “It really opens your eyes to what students have experienced.” But she also said it’s a problem when such incidents aren’t reported immediately “and then we are dealing with incidents that are months — and sometimes years — old.”

She also said the principals apologized for seeming to hurry through the meeting but it was scheduled for only a half hour and ended up going more than an hour. “We were extremely late to meetings that were scheduled immediately following.”

Despite that, “we really listened to all of their concerns,” she said. “They had some great ideas.”

A school climate survey found that 70 percent of FGHS students feel “students treat others respectfully,” O’Neill wrote in an email Tuesday. “With that said, if ANY of our students experience harassment or disrespectful comments that make them feel unwelcome, we have work to do.”

O’Neill told the students that teams of teachers would be working over the summer to incorporate the discrimination topic into the regular curriculum next year. And she suggested they could help make a difference by joining leadership groups such as the Vik Crew or the student advisory council.

Villanueva contacted a friend on the Vik Crew to ask about it, only to be told that “they don’t usually deal with those issues.” Vik Crew members lead new freshmen around the school and help plan assemblies, she said.

Most of the students had never heard of the student advisory council before so were uncertain about its impact. They’ve considered starting their own club but haven’t yet done so.

Shepard said the most hopeful thing to come out of the meeting was that O’Neill promised to look into bringing a peer-mediation program to the school to handle incidents of discrimination.

But overall, the students left feeling like they hadn’t been able to get their message across. So they decided to take the next step.

Power to the people

At Monday night’s school board meeting, Flores, Unterseher, Villanueva and freshman Dealiliah Jeschke all testified separately about the “racial issues no one has addressed,” as Jeschke put it.

Unterseher read comments from a couple of the index cards.

Villanueva said she had talked to FGHS graduates who told her not to give up on her campaign to change the school culture. They told her they’d tried to stand up against discrimination but felt like they didn’t have a voice, she said.

Flores read a prepared statement. “For years, students have been victims or bystanders of racial slurs and cultural judgment,” she began and later cited school district policy against discrimination. “Do we just hold our voice for more years? No. My peers and I have decided to take action and it would mean a bigger deal if we had your support.”

Board members expressed interest in seeing all the index-card comments and praised the four students for bringing the issue to them.

District Superintendent Yvonne Curtis said she would follow up with the students and the FGHS administrators together “to hear what action students would like to see” and to listen to the administrators too.

The students had planned to talk about their frustration with the administration but minutes before they testified board chairman Lonnie Winkler read the rules and procedures for public comments, which forbade criticism of school district employees.

The four left the board meeting breathing sighs of relief, Flores said.

“We were all nervous but after the meeting we all felt like we did a great job and we felt brave because we put aside all our fears and got to reach our goal for that day.” 

The following are incidents students described on index cards at Forest Grove High School to help the school’s Equity Team prepare for an April 29 staff/teacher training day on discrimination and prejudice (they have been slightly edited for clarity):

- This past semester I was talking to my classmate in Spanish because I have a really hard time talking in English. Then after some minutes another classmate (he was white) just interrupted us and told me just kinda yelling “Why are you always talking Spanish!? This is f——— America you’re supposed to speak f——— English!” That really hurt my feelings and tears started coming while the teacher was teaching her class. She had to stop it so she could talk to me about what happened.

- Somebody told me they would get in a better college than me because they were white.

- Kids at school constantly bring “Trump” up. Talking about Mexicans in a very offensive way. As if they were nothing.

When that campaign video for (a sophomore class president candidate who photoshopped his face onto the body of U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump with the slogan “Make Forest Grove great again”) came out. Why would the school approve something like that. As if it’s OK to show a video based on that racist politician. That made me uncomfortable because it gives students another reason to bring their Trump comments up. Since the school gave permission for that video. Even though our school is diverse and Trump has targeted certain groups.

- White students think just because you aren’t white you have no potential and aren’t smart.

- Where I lived before here, everyone was accepted, but when I moved to FG I noticed how stereotypical this school is. I hate it here. When I walk through the halls and confront racists all I get back is, “You’re just a stupid blond white girl,” or, “I’m just joking.” I hear nigger, beaner, fag, or sexist “jokes” thrown around ... Being a girl at this school is seen as a bad thing. Being black is a bad thing. Being Mexican is a bad thing. When in reality it’s nothing anyone can change. After (an African American teacher was called the n-word), all I heard was, “She shouldn’t be so offended.” How would you feel? When she stood up for herself people would say it was wrong.

- I heard a boy yell to a transgender guy, “You throw like a girl little bitch.”

- I hate having to walk around school and having people assume that I’m not offended and others aren’t offended by Trump like how (that sophomore class president candidate) used it as (his) campaign. It’s hurtful being Mexican. [Just because I was born here in America] doesn’t mean I’m not hurt.

- One of my friends said, “All of my Mexican friends are smarter than all of you white people, which surprises me.” I have heard terrible names, just today at the assembly (after seeing) the first male prom court member, people behind me were saying, "fag, they should go die, can't believe that boy is dressed like that, he's not a girl." Others say, “F——— beaner/nigger” as a joke to their “friends.”

- “How do you get all those clothes? I mean you’re Mexican!”

- “You’re basically white, you live by white people and your parents make good money!”

- I’ve heard “nigger,” “beaner” and “faggot” being thrown around in the hallways.

- One of my friends was told he’s not smart enough to be Asian.

- I have heard the words: tranny, fag, Nigga, retard and she-male used as insults in the hall and within the classroom.

I’ve heard people say “Oh, he’s black, so he must be good at basketball,” or “Oh, she’s Asian, of course she’s good at math.”

- I’ve heard people call friends of mine “Mexican bitch” and offensive things like that. Racism is a problem in this school, you can’t keep denying it just because you personally have never seen it. That’s like saying there’s no problem with homelessness because you haven’t seen a homeless person in Forest Grove. Or saying that people around the world aren’t really starving because you had eaten breakfast.