Aztec dancers perform at a protest organized by Latinos Unidos Siempre outside a Salem-Keizer School Board meeting on Tuesday, May 11, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

As the Salem-Keizer School Board began a meeting Tuesday night, air horns sounded and Aztec dancers began a ritual dance in the parking lot outside.

Members of youth group Latinos Unidos Siempre said they wanted board leadership to make clear members of the Proud Boys and white supremacist groups are not welcome in local schools.

The group played music, banged on windows outside the boardroom and had drummers and dancers.

(Video by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The Proud Boys are a self-described “western Chauvinist” group that has frequently engaged in street brawls in Salem and across Oregon.

Sandra Hernández-Lomelí, director of Latinos Unidos Siempre, said the concern arose after a May 1 rally in Riverfront Park where Proud Boys provided “security” and a speaker suggested members of the group could come to schools to address bullying.

“They were threatening to come to the schools armed,” Hernández-Lomelí said. “We want (school board leadership)to denounce that.”

Members of the district's classified employee union separately protested Tuesday at the meeting over what they described as inadequate custodial staffing levels and high turnover.

Board Chair Satya Chandragiri said he wasn’t aware of what the Latinos Unidos Siempre protest was over before arriving at the board meeting.

Latinos Unidos Siempre has regularly protested school board and district events and meetings over the past year and led an effort to end district contracts for police in schools.

“I had no idea what they were protesting anymore,” Chandragiri said. “I cannot simply go and make some statement without understanding what is going on.”

He said he was also unaware the May 1 rally took place in Salem or that there was discussion of having Proud Boys in schools. Chandragiri said he’s been focused on board work, including trying to pass a budget and reviewing data on school discipline and expulsions, which was a topic discussed at Tuesday’s meeting.

“We were discussing all kinds of things which were very important equity issues, essentially what LUS has been asking all along,” Chandragiri said.

No protesters were able to enter the board meeting Tuesday. The board moved meetings to Zoom last spring when the Covid pandemic began and resumed in-person sessions April 13, saying only board members and district employees could be in the room.

Most board members have attended meetings in person since, though some have chosen to remain online. The public can watch meetings on a livestream, but the board stopped taking live calls during a public comment period earlier this year. Instead, members of the public must submit written comments by noon the day before the meeting.

Hernández-Lomelí said the group wants the board to return to taking live testimony, saying the change amounts to silencing critical voices.

Chandragiri proposed that change because he and other board members felt live comments were too often dominated by the same people, often members of Latinos Unidos Siempre, calling every meeting. He said he remains willing to meet personally with anyone to discuss school board business.

“It served a purpose for people to vent their feelings and let us know how much they were suffering,” he said, referring to live comments at meetings over the past year. But now, he said “we are not in that kind of acute crisis our community was going through several months ago.”

He said the board wanted time to consider input on policies before voting on them.

“We get more people able to send their things in a thoughtful manner and we can really use it for policy building,” he said.

Chandragiri said there are no definitive plans to resume regular in-person meetings. That will depend on state Covid restrictions being lifted, he said.

“This is not because the school board wants it that way. It’s because of all the restrictions by public health we still have to maintain,” he said.

(Video by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

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

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