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FGHS students march in protest of banner, racism

About a third of Forest Grove High School’s 1,900 students streamed out the front doors Thursday morning shortly before 10 a.m. to the cheers of supporters from other schools and organizations waiting for them outside.

“I felt like it surpassed anything I anticipated,” said Bianca Bermejo, a FGHS junior who is being credited with spreading the walkout idea along with her sophomore sister, Natalia, and a senior, Janet Silva. The three got the idea around 9 p.m. last night and began spreading it through Twitter, Snapchat, texts, Facebook and other social media. Texts and posts were still flying around near midnight last night.

Bermejo said she thought it would just be FGHS students walking and had no idea how many would risk getting in trouble for doing so. She was thrilled to see more than 600 students of all races, including whites, pour outside the next day, chanting and cheering and waving banners and flags.

She was also amazed at the number of supporters who showed up from Glencoe, Hillsboro and Sunset high schools, as well as a group of MECHA members from Portland State and Oregon State universities, along with “Sanchez,” a member of the Portland Brown Berets.

The walkout was sparked by an inflammatory banner that appeared briefly inside the school Wednesday, May 18, proclaiming “Build A Wall,” referring to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s vow to build a wall along the Texas-Mexico border. Although the slogan technically refers to keeping out immigrants who try to come to the U.S. illegally, it has become shorthand for a general prejudice against all Latinos, said Eddie Bolanos, an office administrator at Centro Cultural in Cornelius.A FGHS student played a coronet in the march.

"There are a lot of assumptions that all Mexicans are illegal and that Latinos are illegal," Bolanos said.

In fact, many FGHS Latinos were born here and are legal citizens. But they might have parents or grandparents or others in their family who came to the U.S. illegally and while many of those have since gained legal residency through amnesty programs, the criticism of "illegals" still hangs over their families, Bolanos said.

For those students who do not have legal documents, coming to the U.S. was probably not their choice, but their parents' choice -- made when they were still young children, Bolanos said. "They didn't choose to come here (but) they can't go back because this is their home."

The Build a Wall sign followed a number of other race-related incidents at the school which have been happening for years, some students say — but only began coming to light recently after a student stuck his head in the room of an African American teacher and said “There’s the nigger.”

With a demographic breakdown of 46 percent Latino and 48 percent white, most of the reported race-related incidents have targeted minorities.

Curtis: sign 'intolerable'

Wednesday morning, after a few speeches and cheers, the group of about 1,000 students marched off the campus and traveled a mile and a half south to the school administration building, waving Mexican and American flags, as well as a Bernie Sanders campaign signs and many banners such as “Build Bridges, Not Walls;” “Si Se Puede” (Yes, we can); “Judge a person by their actions, not their accents;” “Brown is Beautiful;” “When will society respect the humanity of all people?”

One vehicle drove past with a Trump campaign banner bearing his slogan “Make America Great Again” torn in half and hanging out the window.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Angelea Perez, the mother of one of the students who walked out, drove to the school with her 3-year-old daughter, Salas Garza, to watch the demonstration. It makes me proud that theyre out here and standing up for themselves, she said, but I feel bad that our kids have to go through this. Perez herself said she has never personally experienced any discrimination or prejudice during her time in Forest Grove, but knows her daughter has seen racist graffiti on school walls and heard things in the hallways.

Earlier that day, a row of TV news reporters had questioned Forest Grove schools Superintendent Yvonne Curtis about racial tension at the high school and the proposed walkout.

Curtis said the “Build a Wall” sign at the high school was “intolerable.” It was not approved — and would not have been approved if the sign-hangers had sought approval — because “it makes people feel unsafe,” she said. “We also believe it was put up to create a disruption.”

Curtis said FGHS administrators have identified the sign-hangers, who have faced disciplinary action, although she can’t give details on disciplinary actions.

While some students said school administrators left the sign up, FGSD Chief of Staff Connie Potter said the sign was taken down immediately.

Regarding the walkout, Curtis said students wouldn’t face discipline as long as they stayed on campus.

After a few minutes, the students took the protest to the Forest Grove School District administration building on Main Street, marching through downtown and drawing attention from townsfolk.

One of the students who left the parking lot to march was senior Diana Lopez, who told the News-Times that FGHS teachers had been telling students that if they walked to the administration building, they wouldn’t walk in the school’s graduation ceremony.

At least one student appeared to think that meant he wouldn’t graduate and headed back to school, but other students said that it only meant they won’t walk in the ceremony. Potter said students were told neither that they would not graduate nor that they would not walk at the ceremony.

Other students were talking about consequences they may face.

“I just talked to mom and we aren’t grounded but she said if we get detention we will have to serve it," one student told her sibling.

Local event, national issue

The tension at the school is “a microcosm of what’s happening nationwide,” Curtis said.

Forest Grove School Board chairman Lonnie Winkler said he was pleased the students remained peaceful, safe and cordial. "They had a message to send and they sent it while being safe," he said. "I don't know how to respond to the demand that we not let this happen because we can't control the actions of every student. We can make sure it's dealt with in an expeditious fashion."

Sam Truman, a 15-year-old freshman, said he has heard people speak racial slurs and when he was a seventh-grader at Neil Armstrong Middle School, he witnessed two white boys beating up a Latino boy as they called him racist names. He said he reported the incident and one of the boys was suspended.

“I think it’s a long time coming that the student body stand up for what’s right,” said Ryan Kimberly, who has two children attending FGHS. “They have my full support.”

FGHS junior Leif Jorgensen, who didn’t have a class at the time the march started, joined the crowd to see what would happen. He said it was good to show the whole student body standing up against a small group of racist students.

But he was torn because he knew the walkout would probably cast more blame on the FGHS administration, “which isn’t entirely fair” because “administrators can’t control what kids do” and they have been trying to address the problem.Students gathered at the FGSD Administrative Office Building at the end of the march.

A few students felt more strongly about what they feel is a lack of action on the part of administrators.

“We’re here in support of the Hispanic people. We planned this so the school will hear us,” said Elizabeth Ortega, a FGHS student. “I feel like they don’t do anything. I feel like they just send out letters and say they’re dealing with it but they’re not.”

Julian Zavala felt the same way.

“I experienced racism while I was here,” said Zavala, who now attends CALC, the district’s alternative school. “I felt like we weren’t treated the same as white kids and we weren’t held to as high of a standard. I decided to come out and support. What else can we do?”

“The school isn’t doing anything about racism. They say, ‘Yes, we are going to work on it’ but nothing ever happens,” said Emily Garrett, a FGHS student. “We’re the same even though we look different.”

Neighboring students join in

A portion of the students joining in the protest were white and from other school districts.

“I’m here because I support the movement. We’ve grown up in a community that’s extremely diverse and what happened yesterday wasn’t acceptable,” said Marina Rael, a Hillsboro resident.

“It wasn’t aimed directly at our school but it still impacts us as minority,” said Jasmine Chavez, a Glencoe High School student. At Glencoe, she said they hear some racist jokes but try not to make a big deal out of them. They haven't experienced anything like the incidents at FGHS, she said.

Students were getting emotional as they explained their individual motivations for attending the protest. Marina Alvarez and Andrea Chunga (far left and second from left) attended the rally to support the young women they work with through Adelante Mujeres Chicas program (right).

“Latinos are a big part of the United States and we came here because we see the future," said Bubbles Torrez, a FGHS student whose family came from Mexico. "A lot of people don’t see the fact that we look up to the U.S. We have nothing over there and you have everything over here.”

Andrea Chunga and Marina Alvarez both work with the Adelante Mujeres Chicas program, which creates after-school programs for minority students. They joined in the march because many of the girls they work with have told them about times when they haven't felt safe at FGHS because they're Hispanic.

“There needs to be action taken and they need to feel comfortable in their school," Alvarez said.