Thousands call on school board directors to resign as Salem-Keizer leaders discuss police in schools

The 2019 Salem-Keizer School Board (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Salem-Keizer school board members spent much of a four-hour public meeting Tuesday night explaining they want to listen to the community about the future of police in local schools, but devoted only one hour to hearing community input after more than 180 people called in or submitted video or written testimony.

The meeting, which was set to vote on the district’s budget for the coming year, came as about 2,600 people have signed a petition circulated by Latinos Unidos Siempre calling on board Director Paul Kyllo and Chair Marty Heyen to step down from their offices and for the district to remove police from schools.

Kyllo, who is white, wore a mask of a Black man’s face for nearly all of an hour and a half long school board meeting on March 30. He said the action was meant to protest the security of virtual school board meetings by suggesting anyone could call in and claim to be a school board member while voting. Kyllo subsequently apologized in an April 12 letter, but the video resurfaced this week and has been widely shared on social media.

Related coverage: Board director, community leaders call on Salem-Keizer school board chair Marty Heyen to step down

Superintendent Christy Perry rebukes school board over “discounting” experiences of students of color

Latinos Unidos Siempre leaders have said Kyllo should resign for his actions, and Heyen for allowing them to take place without challenge, as well as what they describe as an ongoing pattern of her refusal to listen to students of color in the boardroom. 

Neither Kyllo nor Heyen specifically addressed the calls for their resignation during the meeting. Board Director Sheronne Blasi also called on Heyen to resign in a Tuesday morning letter sent to other board directors, but did not mention her request during the board meeting.

Video of the June 23, 2020 Salem-Keizer School Board meeting.

The board finished Tuesday’s meeting without a clear course for moving forward other than a commitment to holding community discussions about officers in schools with a plan of action by August 28. Board members voted to approve the budget for next school year without changes, but that action does not preclude them from separately modifying or cancelling contracts with law enforcement agencies who provide police in schools.

Superintendent Christy Perry and other district administrators began conversations with community groups and police leaders two weeks ago when Latinos Unidos Siempre and other social justice organizations first demanded police be removed from local schools.

Heyen said the board would be “substantially involved” in conversations over the summer about the future of the program rather than leaving them to district leadership. But a half hour of discussion between board members yielded no plan for which board members, if any, would be involved in the discussions or how they would be organized.

Of about two dozen comments delivered by phone or video during the meeting, most supported removing officers from schools, called on board members to resign or do more to address racism, or both. Six people specifically asked district leaders to keep police in schools.

The roughly 150 written comments submitted were more split, though a majority called for police to be removed from schools, other action to address racism and board member resignations. Over 1,000 people have also signed a Latinos Unidos Siempre petition asking the district to immediately end police contracts.

Below is a sampling of the public comments submitted.

“After watching the recording of the March 30 board meeting today I just feel so disappointed with and dumbfounded by our leadership. During the meeting how could Director Kyllo hold a placard of the face of a black man over his own face for over an hour while reports and Powerpoints were being presented, without any other board member or cabinet member for that matter asking him what in the world are you doing or thinking?…Watching the recording was surreal and so sad. Still, not one school board or cabinet member calls him out. None of those powerful adults rose to the occasion to speak truth to power.”

Phil Decker, McKay High School teacher and former Four Corners Elementary School principal, by phone

“I’m tired of you people not listening to us. I thought y’all said our voices matter. It’s clear you guys don’t care about our safety. By funding policing and keeping SROs in school you are supporting the system that kills black and brown people, that pushes us towards the school to prison pipeline. It is time you guys take responsibility and accountability for the harm you have caused our communities. SROs claim that  they are there for students but the only time they approach a student of color is not to keep them safe. It is to intimidate them to criminalize, harass, hyperseuxlaize them or arrest them. What do you think this does to our mental health? This is not what safety looks like. We are not safe at school.”

Alondra Sanchez, 14, student, by phone

I am very concerned about student safety being negatively impacted if Sro s are removed. 

I also feel this is students best chance To have positive interactions with the police while in grade school and middle school and high school. I believe there are concerns and lack of trust and misunderstanding especially with the people of color in our community. 

 I would love to see a school district and the police department work together to have solutions where it is part of the police officers job description in the schools to interact more with students in ways that is building positive relationships and education and support and were students feel their voices can be heard. 

Please do not remove them from our schools altogether as I believe this will only increase the divide.”

Kendra Barkes, teacher and parent, by email

“My heart broke as I heard the students testifying at your last meeting about the fear they had felt at the hands of police. These officers are supposedly in our schools to make them safer, or to at least help students feel safer. It’s obvious from listening to students of color that neither of these things are true.

SRO supporters say they are mentors who work to funnel students out of the justice system. But when police are readily available, teachers and administrators are more likely to turn to them to deal with disciplinary issues. As for mentors, hire counselors and mental health professionals of color instead. They are much more qualified to help students feel safe and provide them the positive guidance and support they need.”

Sarah Evans, parent, by email

“My most terrifying and recent experience with policing at my school was during the Fall. It was football season, and I wanted to go show support to my school and be with my friends. As I started approaching the gate to get in school I watched as a group of tall men looked towards me, I was feeling uncomfortable but I ignored them. Once I was about to pay to get in the stadium I was pulled to the side by three SROs. I was being asked multiple questions at once such as: ‘Where are you coming from?’ ‘What are your intentions tonight?’ ‘Do you plan on committing a crime?’. I was very confused and scared, my anxiety was being triggered by these officers. Tears started streaming down my face while I stared straight down to my shoes. I tried to answer all their questions since I was not looking for any trouble. I then asked what had I done wrong, they said someone had called the police on me for acting ‘suspicious’. I then explained to them that I have not, that I just had come walking from my house to watch the game. The sun was starting to come down and I was still outside of the stadium being questioned. After a while of being interrogated, I was told that I must leave the campus.”

Grecia Gomez, McKay High School student, by email

“I am so dismayed that such an insensitive thing occurred as did when a white school board member used the mask of a black man at a board meeting and NO ONE questioned or objected to this! What an embarrassing incident at such a pivotal time in our community. The lack of leadership in not even questioning this is astounding.

You have lost the trust of many in our community.”

Pat Donenfeld, Salem resident, by email

“Please notice that the loud minority have no facts but only go off of raw emotions . Schools NEED resource officers . These amazing men & women build bridges b/n troubled teens & minorities . Look at the people insane people who are illogically protesting against police & SRO . They are all cut from the same cloth ….they believe lies & want to fundamentally tear down our great American Society!”

Josie Alexander, by email

“I’ll keep this short and sweet, if you pull officers from the schools I will pull all of my kids and we will bring them home to be educated and protected.”

Dustin Caldwell, parent, by email

“I am stunned that Director Kyllo thought in any way that the mask was appropriate. Blackface isn’t some new thing that the kids these days are ‘cancelling.’ It’s been a bad thing for a while now. I am much more disappointed that a virtual room full of folks who profess to use an equity lens in their decision making on behalf of our students all somehow overlooked it.

Leadership sets the tone. Leadership shouldn’t see the community’s outrage about this event as the actions of ‘haters.’ Leadership could have intervened. Leadership could have educated Director Kyllo on the spot. Leadership could have taken immediate action to ensure that this doesn’t happen ever again. 

It is disappointing that none of this happened. What will you do to fix it?”

Audrey von Maluski, Stephens Middle School teacher, by email

“There are many students that go through problems daily, whether it be conflicts with students or an uneasy home life, and often times they don’t feel comfortable going to talk to their counselor because that makes kids feel like they are somebody who needs help and isn’t strong enough to handle things on their own. These SROs deal with many of these problems and know what kids are going through, they check up on students whenever they see them and try to form trusting relationships. It’s very important that kids are able to learn to trust police officers from a young age, and the positive influence from these SROs is an amazing opportunity for that.”

Kiera White, junior, Sprague High School, by email

“Let me tell you a story from a relative of mine who used to work in a Salem DLC classroom. My relative (a small, older woman) was caring for her student with autism. She needed help getting her student back into his wheelchair, so she asked one of the SROs for help. He came, placed the kid back into the wheelchair, and then started demonstrating on that kid how to restrain him. Understandably, the student did not take this well. And my relative was furious – using police-style, overly aggressive holds on a kid who was scared and confused.”

Jesse Hays, owner, Archive Coffee & Bar, by email

I had a child who attend McKay High School that was considered a threat. My son was in a bad place, and no matter how much we as parents tried to help, we could not reach him. However, the SRO staff at McKay was able to not only interact with my son in a way that kept the school safe, they were also able to reach him on a personal level and they helped support my son, which really brought him back to a positive decision making pattern and set the path for him to graduate. The SRO staff were not only strong authority figures, but they also were able to connect as friends and mentors. I cannot express how thankful we are for their impact in his life.”

Kristine Blake, parent, by web form

“There’s no polite way to put it, but the Salem-Keizer School District is rife with institutional racist tendencies. Consider; I am frequently asked, when I’m signing in to an assignment at a new school, ‘where did you work last?’ If I had just finished an assignment at McKay, or maybe North High School, even Parrish Middle School, I would get the response, ‘Oh, tough place, how was it?’ As if I was returning from the Front! Where does this come from? …

So, I want to talk about SROs. SROs look a lot like prison guards in the schools. They patrol with a wary eye, and they seem to focus a lot more on Indigenous and Black students. SROs tend not to mix with either students or staff; they treat everyone with a certain reserve and suspicion. And, they’re armed with billy clubs, tasers and guns. Further, when SROs escalate a situation with a kid, the kid is almost invariably an Indigenous or Black student, with the kid leaving the school arrested and in hand-cuffs.

The Salem-Keizer School Board needs to take responsibility for relying on use of force, coercion, and threat, rather than addressing the educational needs of its Black, Brown and Indigenous students. The School Board also needs to take responsibility for the over-all climate of oppression it has created in the pursuit of control, which is always to the detriment of education. “

  Charles Wynns, instructional assistant, by email

“I feel my son is safer with school resource officers available than if they are not in the building. Should something horrendous happen at one of the SKSD schools and the actions could have been prevented and or at least reduced by having an SRO present, we will never be able to live with ourselves if something was to happen. And I don’t want us to take a chance. I do though hear the community and as a member of the community I would challenge the district to appoint a standing committee of students, parents, district officials, SROs and community members to review concerns that have been raised with Superintendent Perry and other members of the board and develop policies to address those matters. I also urge you to set up a district-citizen review committee to look at systemic barriers and recommend ongoing changes.”

Shelly Ehenger, parent of a South Salem High School student, former Salem-Keizer NAACP secretary, by phone

“The practice of blackface in any form is extremely offensive and absolutely unacceptable, as is the laughter of some board members and the silence that allowed these actions to go unchallenged. The lack of courage for the entire board to stand up to racism is disappointing and demonstrates a lack of empathy and understanding of the challenges facing students in the Salem-Keizer district who are Black, indigenous and people of color. These students represent more than half of the entire student population in SK public schools. As people across the country are hitting the streets each and every day calling for action that will value black lives, the words and actions of this school board are moving this community backwards. I’m hopeful that changes today.”

Adriana Miranda, executive director of Causa, parent, member of the Salem-Keizer budget committee, by phone

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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.