How TTSD passed an Anti-Racist Resolution in 4-1 vote

Emily Phuong Tran

Tigard-Tualatin School Board passed a resolution condemning racism and committing to be an anti-racist school district at the last board meeting on June 8. 

The resolution was brought on by the Tigard-Tualatin Student Union (TTSU) in conjunction with Director Ben Bowman. It asks the board to adopt a hate speech policy prior to the upcoming school year, to ensure a culturally responsive curriculum across the district as well as to work towards a more diverse workforce.

Ultimately, the resolution succeeded with four yays from Director Ben Bowman, Director Karen Emerson, Director Jill Zurschmeide and Director Maureen Wolf, and one nay from Director Sharon Fox. 

For months, the TTSU has been in conversation with the board about schools’ lack of protection for students of color. They sat in on five listening sessions hosted by the board, where staff, parents and students detailed experiences with racism in the district.

The board released a hate speech statement, noting that they have elevated accounts of racism from a building-level review to district-level review on Feb. 10. It reaffirmed some points TTSD currently holds, while setting a deadline for a report of the progress for June 2020. 

On March 12, Tigard High was set to participate in Unity Day, a student-led event specifically designated to engage in vital conversations around equity and increase cultural understanding. Tualatin was also scheduled for the same event in April. However, Governor Brown’s orders regarding coronavirus led to its cancellation. 

Following the nationwide protests against police brutality against black people, TTSU worked with Director Bowman to establish a team of students across the district and began a campaign to garner support for the resolution. Their petition, “We Demand Change In TTSD,” collected over 750 signatures in less than 24 hours from parents, students, and community members. Then, they worked to write the resolution to be presented at the June 8 work session and board meeting.

Prior to the vote, the board as well as district equity coordinators, district directors, and other high-level personnel engaged in a lengthy work session. A work session is a discussion of the topics without voting on it, allowing board members time to think before they head to an official vote. Director Bowman opened the presentation by clarifying that the resolution does not change existing policies, does not provide new resources to the district, but it “does set a new direction for the district for which we can be held accountable.” 

Over 60 percent of students at both Tigard High and Tualatin High are white. The district has made efforts to support students of color through hiring equity coordinators. These staff specialize in communicating the needs of students, such as helping choose culturally diverse curricula or mentoring student affinity groups. 

However, President of Tigard ASB, Sarah Gentry, Tigard ‘20, a white student, says she still sees white privilege play out in the treatment of staff to students. In her speech, Gentry recalled seeing her fellow classmates of color being harassed by security guards when they are late to class, studying in the library and walking in the hallways, while she never faced the same dilemmas. 

President of Tigard High Black Student Union, Abdi Mohamoud, Tigard ‘21, asked everyone to close their eyes as he emotionally recounted every single racist remark, including the n word, aimed at him, “my whole life, every single day, during class, in the hallway, in the library, at a football game, by my fellow classmates.” 

He choked up, wiping his tears as he spoke, saying that he has been having this conversation with district administrators since freshman year. 

“I can’t keep waiting. It has been enough time,” he pleaded. 

Co-presidents of TTSU, Kavi Shrestha, Tigard ‘20, and Matthew Brown, Tualatin ‘20, urged board members to respond accordingly to the historic moment the nation is living through. They pointed out that though Tigard-Tualatin has seen fewer protests than downtown Portland, the district is not immune to the same problems. Shrestha asked members to be “anti-racist,” a word that has gained momentum in the past week. It encourages people to not just be “not racist” but to actively fight racial injustices by taking steps to dismantle the systemic problems. He insisted that this resolution may be Tigard-Tualatin’s first step to becoming an anti-racist district. 

After the testimonies, board members and the superintendent still needed to address their concerns. 

Superintendent Dr. Sue Rieke-Smith asked the students to provide concrete steps to implementation. Director Bowman had stated firsthand that a resolution is not supposed to change any existing policies. She questioned the practicality of the plan, reasoning that declaring a rule would not change the behaviors of students. 

Mohamoud clarified that “the reason behind it becoming a resolution is for us to have accountability. Now, if [the district] is not doing the right thing, I can come back and I can say, ‘You guys promised me you guys would have this done, but you guys didn’t,’ so it’s an accountability thing.” 

At the proceeding board meeting, when board members took a vote on the resolution, they still had doubts. 

Director Karen Emerson agreed with the resolution, but worried that it was excluding some of the progress educators have made to equity. This was shared by Director Maureen Wolf, who said she refused to “throw the staff under the bus.” Brown resisted these amendments, noting that the need to recognize all the good may downplay the harmful eurocentrism that exists in TTSD’s education. 

Director Bowman contested that, “If our equity lens yields a result that is not equitable, then that is a problem. The purpose of the resolution is to be an earthquake, to significantly shift the way we do business. It feels to me what we’re trying to do is to make everyone happy. I don’t want to make people unhappy and excluded, but what I want is for the resolution to really shift our course.” 

Director Sharon Fox pointed out that the resolution seemed to negate the hate speech statement the Board released in February. According to her, the resolution offers nothing new to what the district has already put out.

The section that names George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arberry proved contentious, as Director Jill Zurschmeide advocated for its omission while Director Bowman insisted on its inclusion. She expressed that to only include the most recent deaths pushes down on the long history of police brutality against black people. Director Bowman, however, bluntly responded that this resolution would not have been seriously considered “if those three people were not murdered. That’s the reality of it.” 

The last point of debate was the fact that it had come from students. Director Zurschmeide seemed uncomfortable with the fact that it was “being handed to the board as ‘this is what you should say.’” 

In the end, there were five minor amendments. Before the vote, Director Fox asked students to ‘take a pledge to educate myself on racial issues, to seek opportunities of bridge-building between our schools and community, to surround myself with diversity, more than I have been, to listen, to learn from minorities, to take notice and take responsibility for negatives stereotypes and biases, to stand as an ally for the marginalized, and to model reconciliation in my own relationships.” 

She was later the singular “nay” on the vote.

In an interview with the Tigard-Tualatin Times on June 18, Director Fox defended her vote, complaining that the resolution did not clearly define hate speech and create a system of accountability. This explanation was not mentioned during the work session or the board meeting. She also said there was no opportunity for revisions.  Directors Emerson, Zurschmeide and Wolf made five minor changes prior to the vote. 

Director Bowman was also interviewed at the same time by the Tigard-Tualatin Times and asked whether he was disappointed with Fox’s vote. He responded, “I don’t think I should say.”