Salem-Keizer board director faces investigation over confrontation with football referees

A Salem-Keizer School Board director faces a district investigation after he allegedly put a hand on a referee while disputing officials’ performance following a West Salem High School football game last week.

Osvaldo Avila will be temporarily banned from district sporting events while the district investigates, district spokeswoman Emily Hicks said.

Avila did not dispute that he spoke with referees about their performance and said he patted one on the back, but said the interaction was cordial and there was no aggression. He said he will cooperate with the district’s investigation.

“The truth will come out and show that I was not physically violent or aggressive to anyone,” he told Salem Reporter.

Avila’s son plays on the football team, he said.

The incident took place following the Oct. 26 junior varsity game against Sheldon High School in Eugene.

Mike Whitty, commissioner of the Lane County Football Officials Association, filed a complaint that evening with Salem-Keizer Superintendent Christy Perry, West Salem principal Carlos Ruiz, athletic director Wendy Stradley and officials with the Oregon School Activities Association, which regulates high school sports and activities.

Whitty’s account says multiple fans got “overly excited” following a call at the end of the game where the Sheldon quarterback spiked the ball from a shotgun snap to stop the clock. A rule change about five years ago allowed players to snap the ball from that formation, but Whitty said fans likely weren’t aware of the rule change.

Following the game, Whitty wrote, “One fan walked over to the exit and waited for the officials to approach. The man put his hand forcefully on the back of the head referee and said, ‘I am on the Salem-Keizer School Board and I will be calling OSAA to report you tomorrow.'”

Officials identified the man as Avila after looking at photos of the school board, Whitty said.

“As many of you know we are dealing with too many incidents where fans are angrily confronting officials at high school athletic contests. It’s a nationwide epidemic. When it happens with a person in a position of authority it’s that much worse. Mr. Avila should have known better,” Whitty wrote.

The game officials conferred after the incident and agreed to write the situation up as a post-game fan ejection, Whitty said.

Avila said he approached referees after the game because he took issue with their performance overall, not any single call.

“I was smiling, they were smiling, and there was no physical aggression,” he said. “There was no hostile situation. It was just a really unfairly called game.”

Hicks said the district is retaining a third party investigator to investigate the report. She did not have a timeline for when an investigation would be completed.

The incident was publicized over the weekend by Salem-Keizer Education First, a political action committee seeking to recall Avila, along with school board directors Ashley Carson Cottingham and Karina Guzmán Ortiz.

“THINK ABOUT THIS: If Avila will go so far as to publicly accost a sports referee, what else is he capable of?” the group said in a Facebook post.

Parent Casity Troutt filed recall petitions Aug. 25. Her petitions reference all three board members voting in August to ban people with concealed carry permits from carrying firearms on school grounds, board members’ support for retaining challenged books about gender and sexuality in school libraries and their handling of public comment during school board meetings.

The recall committee has so far raised $16,210 toward the recall campaign, according to Secretary of State records.

The group has until Nov. 23 to submit signatures for the recall effort. If they’re successful in gathering at least 16,283 valid signatures per board member, a recall election would take place by mid-January.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter. Click I want to subscribe!

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.