A screenshot of the Salem-Keizer School Board’s March 30 meeting shows board member Paul Kyllo, top center, holding a mask of former Portland Trailblazers player Cliff Robinson over his face.
A school board member and others in the community calling for Salem-Keizer’s school board chair to resign over what they see as a pattern of dismissiveness toward students of color and an unwillingness to address racism.
Director Sheronne Blasi and others said they’re responding in part to Marty Heyen’s failure to publicly speak out when a fellow board member appeared in blackface during a March school board meeting.
“At a time in our history when we should all come together to stand up to racist words and behaviors, you as the board chair have failed to lead our board in any kind of affirmation that our schools, our teachers and administrators, our classified staff, our executive team, and our board oppose racism and will work harder and strive to do better for our students who have been made to feel less than the amazing child that each one is,” Blasi wrote.
The extraordinary public rebuke comes hours ahead of a school board meeting Tuesday night where racism and policing in local schools are expected to be center stage.
Board members, already facing an organized push to remove police from local schools, are newly under fire after a video of board member Paul Kyllo holding a mask of a Black man in front of his face for the entirety of a March 30 school board meeting was widely shared on social media this week.
Latinos Unidos Siempre, a Latino youth group, on Monday posted a video with clips from the meeting on Facebook, calling on Kyllo and Heyen to step down. It has since been shared over 700 times.
The group has been leading the push on school police, protesting outside the district office last week and criticizing board members for ignoring concerns they’ve raised with school discipline at many previous meetings.
On Tuesday morning, school board member Sheronne Blasi called on Heyen to resign, citing what she described as a continued failure of leadership.
“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 the other six board members.
Marty Heyen’s school board campaign photo
Heyen didn’t respond to a voice message, text message and email from Salem Reporter Tuesday morning seeking comment. She sparred with several community members on her public Facebook page over the weekend, addressing “haters” accusing her of racism, noting she wasn’t referring to district students. Her public page no longer appears on Facebook.
Tuesday’s school board meeting begins at 6 p.m. and will be broadcast live on CCTV and on YouTube.
The March 30 school board meeting was the first time the board met online instead of in person in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The agenda was short and included an update on school operations after schools were closed and changing rules so a majority of the board wouldn’t be required to be physically at meetings to act.
A district video of that meeting showed Kyllo, who is white, holding a popsicle stick mask of former Portland Trailblazers player Cliff Robinson, a Black man, in front of his face. He held the mask there for nearly the entire meeting that lasted about 90 minutes.
“Paul, if you want to ask a question, you can move your mask,” Heyen told Kyllo as the board prepared to vote near the end of the meeting. He obliged, the video showed.
No director asked him to explain his appearance or remove his mask at the start of the meeting. Blasi attended the meeting by phone without video on and said she didn’t see the video until later.
District administrators at the meeting, including Superintendent Christy Perry, didn’t address Kyllo’s mask during the meeting.
Superintendent Christy Perry said she reached out to NAACP leaders within a day or two of the meeting after she received emailed complaints and explained they should reach out to Heyen as the board chair to request an apology.
In an interview Tuesday with Salem Reporter, Kyllo said he used the mask in protest of the district’s lack of security in online meetings.
“I was trying to make the point that they didn’t know who was at the Zoom meeting,” he said. He had the mask from a giveaway at a game celebrating Robinson’s 10,000th point for the Blazers, he said.
“It was basically something that was honoring to him and that’s why I wore it. I didn’t think anything of it,” he said.
Kyllo’s actions weren’t widely publicized, but Benny Williams, president of the Salem-Keizer NAACP, wrote to Perry, Kyllo and Heyen after the meeting seeking an explanation and apology.
He said while Kyllo wasn’t darkening his skin with makeup, the presentation with no clear explanation and no challenge from other board members amounted to blackface.
“It was silly because if he had said something in advance or during the meeting, some kind of a rationale could have been had to either agree or disagree with. Nothing like that came out during the course of that meeting and therefore it was offensive,” Williams said in an interview.
Kyllo’s actions didn’t receive widespread public attention at the time, but Williams said the NAACP asked for and received a public apology. Kyllo wrote a letter to the editor in the Statesman Journal that was published on April 12.
“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,” he wrote.
Williams said he was satisfied with that apology. The NAACP posted a letter on its website stating the issue was resolved.
Sandra Hernández-Lomelí, director of Latinos Unidos Siempre, said she wasn’t aware of the NAACP’s actions, but said she’d heard many students, including Black students, who were newly aware of the video raise concerns in recent days.
She said Kyllo’s actions and the lack of response from other board members during the meeting reflects the board’s attitude toward students of color.
“This is a board that’s going to decide whether we should have police in schools. This is a board that’s deciding on the lives of Black and brown youth who completely disregarded that this person did blackface for an entire school board meeting and they’re totally okay with it,” she said.
Levi Herrera-Lopez, a member of the district’s budget committee and executive director of Mano a Mano, shared the video on Facebook, saying he was “having trouble finding a justification” for Kyllo and Heyen to stay on the board.
“Am I missing something? Are my eyes deceiving me? Is what I’m seeing not happening? What justification is there for either of them staying in their positions? I say this fully aware that it is possible I’ll get kicked out of the budget committee, because the board is the one who appointed me,” he wrote.
On Tuesday, Kyllo said he should have recognized the mask would be perceived as blackface. But he said he’s also being unfairly lumped in with other board members when he’s often cast the sole dissenting vote against district plans, typically over concerns about a lack of public engagement.
“The public’s going to think what they think and they’re going to listen to who they’re going to listen to and I believe in this regard they don’t know which board members are doing what,” he said.
He said board members trying to address systemic inequalities, including disproportionate discipline in schools, are “working behind the scenes but we are not in the majority.”
“We need to be looking at why these students keep coming to us with these concerns, how come they’re not being addressed,” he said.
Kyllo said he doesn’t plan to resign or speak about the matter during Tuesday’s meeting.
Lippold, the board’s vice chair, said Tuesday he recognized Kyllo’s mask as a Timbers player and erred in laughing at the stunt during the meeting and not recognizing why it was harmful.
“I was seeing Cliff Robinson the basketball player and I wasn’t seeing Cliff Robinson the African-American man,” he said.
He said the board needed to do a better job recognizing and addressing racism and issues that disproportionately affect students of color.
“I try really hard to do that and at that point I screwed up,” he said. “I should have been able to spot that right away and I didn’t.”
Lippold said he understands the broader public frustration with the board’s lack of response on issues of disproportionate discipline and policing in schools. He said he’s open to any solution that keeps students safe, including eliminating police or modifying their role.
He said he doesn’t believe Heyen is willing to consider other points of view on police in schools.
“She’s pretty firm in her stance and I can see why the public’s lashing out the way they do, because I think her job is to have an open mind,” he said.
This article was updated to correct the Portland team Cliff Robinson played for.
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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.