A shouting match and conduct considered by some as threatening following a recent Salem-Keizer School Board meeting is behind the decision of school officials to bar citizens from attending school board meetings in-person.
The district’s safety director recounted the Aug. 9 episode in a report released Thursday, and cited other worrisome episodes as well at school board meetings.
Chris Baldridge, the district director of safety and risk management, concluded adults on opposing sides of school issues exhibited bias and harassment in their confrontations. He recommended mediation and also said two adults seen at the heart of the dispute should be formally warned to stop the disruptive behavior or face banishment from school district grounds.
The conflict recounted in Baldridge’s report follows months of contentious public comment during school board meetings over issues including a board vote to ban concealed carry permit holders from bringing firearms onto school campuses, unsuccessful efforts by community members to remove books from school libraries and an escalation in fights and safety issues in schools last year.
Superintendent Christy Perry on Sept. 9 announced that school board meetings for now would be closed to public participation except by remote video or written comment.
The report chronicled the conflict between supporters of a Latinos Unidos Siempre, a youth advocacy group that’s worked to remove police from schools, and a founder of Salem-Keizer We Stand Together, a group formed following the 2021 school board elections to advocate for parents rights and removing “social activism and identity politics” from schools, according to its website.
Baldridge’s investigation was triggered by a complaint filed Aug. 10 by Mike Slagle, a founder of Salem-Keizer We Stand Together. Slagle wrote that his civil rights were violated after he was surrounded and repeatedly called “racist,” “transphobic” and “white supremacist” by a group after leaving the board meeting, held at Miller Elementary School.
Baldridge’s report referred to Slagle only as the complainant, but he confirmed in an email that he submitted it, providing a copy to Salem Reporter. He said Thursday that he found Baldridge’s report one-sided and incomplete.
The report said Slagle took photos of youth with Latinos Unidos Siempre after arriving at the board meeting.
Slagle told Salem Reporter he attended the meeting hoping to testify against the language in the equity policy on the school board agenda, though he was not selected in a lottery to speak. Slagle said he agrees schools should be free of racism, but objected to language in the proclamation which begins by defining white supremacy.
“I agree with 90% of that proclamation, but when you say that, you’re vilifying half of the community,” Slagle said.
Baldridge’s report, Slagle’s account of events, and a statement from Alex Sosa, a youth organizer with Latinos Unidos Siempre, all agree Slagle took photos of Latinos Unidos Siempre members on arrival at the board meeting. But accounts of what happened, and who was responsible, diverge from there.
Slagle said he took a photo based on previous interactions where members of the group yelled at and filmed him and other conservative parents and community members outside of previous school board meetings.
“If something happened to me, I wanted to see who it was to point out because I’ve seen what they’ve done before,” he said.
The Latinos Unidos Siempre group used umbrellas to hide from having their photos taken, Baldridge said, based on conversations with security officers present.
Inside at the board meeting, negative comments between adults from both groups continued during the public comment portion of the meeting, Baldridge reported.
Slagle said conflict began before he left the board room, when a woman walked up to him and called him racist, with several other people joining in. He said Baldrige’s report omitted that detail.
Baldridge’s report said conflict intensified around 7:40 p.m. as people left the meeting.
“Upon leaving the building, a known individual who is an adult member of LUS pointed and stated, “don’t let that [person] take photos of students, [they] need to leave,” Baldridge wrote, saying the comment was directed at the complainant. “Other unidentified individuals were heard yelling similar statements.”
Slagle responded that “I’m not taking photos and you can’t make me (expletive) leave,” Baldridge reported. “Approximately 15-20 individuals began to circle complainant while yelling obscenities,” he continued.
In his complaint, Slagle described the scene from his vantage after he left the board meeting.
“They then started coming after me, still yelling at me with racial epitaphs. The security was not intervening, I felt threatened and started to walk away because I felt like I was going to be physically assaulted. Finally a staff member walked me away, I was very shook up. I think by that time security held back the mob from attacking me,” Slagle wrote.
Baldridge’s report said that the middle school director, who he didn’t identify by name in the report, saw Slagle and another person arguing and that “both persons were nearly chest to chest but never contacted one another.”
The director intervened and escorted Slagle away, the report said.
“It is my professional opinion and observations that both groups used tactics against one another knowing this would result in conflict,” Baldridge wrote, summarizing the conflict.
Sosa said none of the adults confronting Slagle were members of Latinos Unidos Siempre, which is a youth organization, though adults were at the meeting in support of the group.
“As soon as we came out of the board room, our priority was leaving the premises for safety,” Sosa said in his statement. “We were helped by district staff to get into our vehicles because we did not feel safe. So LUS members did not engage with members of SKWST.”
Slagle said Thursday he found the district’s conclusion that conflict was mutual inaccurate and an effort to cover for Latinos Unidos Siempre. He said the group regularly intimidates people with opposing political views.
“They initiate it with us every time,” Slagle said. “I did not instigate this.”
He said he intended to appeal the findings.
Sosa said youth organizers with the group fear for their safety.
“For the past two years, Salem-Keizer School District students who are also part of LUS, as well as LUS staff, have been increasingly targeted by far-right adults in Salem-Keizer due to our advocacy. In regards to the statements made by the complaint, it has been proven that youth and minors who are LUS members, made no engagement with the complaint, even while the complaint continuously tried to take photos of minors and students,” he wrote in an email to Salem Reporter.
Latinos Unidos Siempre for years advocated to remove police officers from schools, with a renewed push in 2020. Perry the following year decided to end school policing and the advocacy group pushed for money to be redirected to counseling and other non-punitive approaches to behavior and discipline issues, rather than hiring more security staff.
The group has also regularly called for conservative members of the school board to resign over their support for keeping police in schools and statements about the district’s equity policies, and criticized Perry for doing too little to support students of color.
Slagle ran unsuccessfully for school board in 2021 against Karina Guzmán Ortiz and has been a regular attendee at board meetings over the past year with other members of Salem-Keizer We Stand Together, a group advocating to “replace identity politics and social activism with critical thinking, personal determination, and objective truth” in public schools, according to its website. Members of the group have spoken in favor of restoring police to schools, and against district policies allowing transgender students to use locker rooms and bathrooms corresponding with the gender they live as, and allowing schools to use a student’s chosen name and pronouns without informing their parents.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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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.