Leanette Mabinton, 15, testifies at a February 2019 school board meeting, asking the board to wait to approve a school boundary change until they can consider student input. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

One hour into a February 2019 school board meeting in Salem, tensions were running high as parents and teachers spoke about a plan to change school attendance boundaries.

Leanette Mabinton, then 15 and sophomore at McKay High School, cracked a nervous grin as she took the microphone to speak.

“I feel like I’m in the room with a lot of emotional and angry adults right now,” she said, cutting through the tension.

The Salem-Keizer School Board was preparing to vote on a plan meant to alleviate overcrowding at local schools. Parents, teachers and other adults had spoken at length about segregation, the importance of neighborhood schools and overflowing classrooms, sometimes through tears.

Mabinton explained with a smile that she and her classmates had only learned of the proposed changes several days earlier.

She spoke for nearly 10 minutes, explaining to dozens of adults how it felt to have her classmates called “too ghetto” at basketball games against other district high schools. She continued on about how students at the most diverse, crowded high school in Salem deserved better than to have their teachers crying in front of the school board about not having enough chairs for their classrooms.

“It feels like a lot of decisions are being made without even letting the students have their voices being heard,” she said.

Mabinton, now 17, is the newly appointed student representative to the school board - the first student to hold a role created in late 2020.

Board Director Jesse Lippold proposed adding a student to advise the board on how to be more responsive to student concerns. The idea came after months of public criticism over how the board has handled discussions over removing police officers from local schools.

Board members selected Mabinton at their January meeting from a pool of seven applicants, all members of Superintendent Christy Perry’s student equity task force.

Mabinton’s term will last through June, when she’s set to graduate from McKay. She sees her role as elevating student concerns to the board, and said she’ll draw on her fellow task force members for input as she works with them.

She believes school board members ran for office because they genuinely want to help all kids. But she said they can often overlook or don’t understand what it’s like to be an African-American student in local schools.

“Do I feel like they’re intentionally serving ill will towards people of color? No. But do I feel like they fully understand what it is to be a person of color? Absolutely not,” she said. “You feel like you have to work harder as a person of color than anyone else and that can bring a lot of stress. You don’t see a lot of teachers that look like you versus white students, you see teachers that look just like them.”

Mabinton has a wide smile and frequently laughs even when talking about serious topics. Her 2019 speech to the board drew sustained applause from the audience, district administrators and school board members, prompting then-board chair Kathy Goss to comment, “There isn’t an adult in the room whether, it's the staff over there or your board that hasn’t learned a lot.”

After a split vote approving the boundary change plan, board members assured the audience they would take another look at construction plans for McKay. Perry soon invited Mabinton to serve on her advisory task force, and on a student group to give input on school security and discipline last year.

“She has her opinions but is continually seeking out the opinion of others and trying to include rather than exclude. Leanette is not only a bridge builder but she can also be an activist and an agitator,” Perry wrote.

Mabinton said she’s hopeful high school students will be able to resume in-person classes at some point before she graduates. She’s eager to see her younger siblings back in the classroom.

The Feb. 9 school board meeting will be Mabinton’s first since being sworn in. She said she’s a “little nervous” but hopes she can build the role into something that helps the board consider student input more.

“I don’t want this to, like, end when I leave. I want it to be very beneficial to the future generation of kids,” she said.

After graduating, Mabinton plans to attend college Phoenix College and hopes to pursue a political career.

“You might see me in the White House,” she said, grinning.

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

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