Grace Caldwell sits in the Salem-Keizer School Board's meeting room on June 22, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Outside of school, Grace Caldwell’s passions are playing tennis and swimming.

But with sports on hold during the pandemic, the McKay High School student spent much of her junior year in meetings with district leaders, giving student input on mental health services and the future of police in schools.

“There wasn’t a lot of good things about online learning except the scheduling,” Caldwell said, summarizing the rough consensus of her peers.

Caldwell, 17, will serve as the sole student advisor to the Salem-Keizer School Board starting in July. Board members appointed her to the role at their June 15 meeting.

Caldwell applied for the job because of what she saw as a growing divide between district leadership, including the school board, and the students they’re meant to be serving.

She hopes to elevate her classmates’ ideas about how to improve school to leaders who are in a position to make changes.

“When you speak firsthand with students, you get candid answers. It’s not filtered,” she said.

She’s the second student to hold the position, which was created in late 2020.

Outgoing board member Jesse Lippold Peone pushed for a student advisor to help the board be more responsive to student concerns.

Fellow McKay student Leanette Mabinton, who graduated earlier this month, took on the job in early 2021. Caldwell said Mabinton encouraged her to be honest and direct.

“If you know you’re saying the right thing, if you feel you’re doing the right thing, you’re probably right,” Caldwell said.

In addition to the school board, Caldwell will keep positions on a district student equity committee and an ongoing group working to revamp the district’s processes for handling student discipline and safety. She’s also involved in McKay’s Black Student Union and concert choir.

Caldwell was part of a student task force originally convened in the summer of 2020 to issue recommendations about the future of police in local schools. After almost six months of work, that task force recommended leaving police in schools while making substantial changes to their role and training.

After controversy erupted between student members of Latinos Unidos Siempre, a youth group that had originally pushed to remove police from schools, and other students on the task force, Superintendent Christy Perry brought in an outside mediator to hold more discussions. Perry ultimately decided to remove police from local schools in March as part of a larger process to change how local schools approach discipline and safety.

“Them removing (school resource officers), to me, it was fine. I’m not mad at it. Because I’m happy we’re re-approaching school discipline,” Caldwell said of the decision. “We’re not done with the whole thing. We’re still going.”

The whiplash of the past year contributed to many students struggling with mental health, she said, with some teens not knowing they were resuming in-person classes until about a week before classes began.

“Things were changing every week,” she said.

Caldwell said as schools resume full-time classes in-person in the fall, she and her peers are advocating for better mental health support for students and school discipline processes based on restorative justice, rather than punishment.

“We need to have more counselors and we need to have more care rooms,” she said.

A care room is one of the concepts under discussion as district leaders rethink discipline. Caldwell described it as a room high school students could be sent if they’re acting out, fighting or talking back in class. There, students could get help from a mediator in cases of conflict with peers, or speak with a counselor if they’re behaving poorly because of a rough day. The focus would be on making amends or calming down. She said rather than writing a referral for poor behavior, a teacher could ask, “Hey can you step out and go talk to somebody over in the care room, or go sit in there and just chill out?”

Caldwell said she’s proud to represent McKay on a district level. Her northeast Salem high school, the largest in the district, is often underestimated or dismissed as a gang school, she said, often by people who don’t actually know anyone who goes there. She hopes she can show the district’s younger students that’s not true.

“You can be a part of the community, and come from a school that has constant stigma,” she said.

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

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