4J District Board Meeting Disrupted by Gun Rights Enthusiasts

Editor’s Note: Board member Michelle Hsu is married to DSM photographer Robert Scherle.

The 4J Board meeting on May 18 began much like every other. The meeting was called to order, attendance was taken, the pledge was spoken as well as a land acknowledgement. However, during the pledge to the flag, the words, “under God, ” were emphasized by the audience, setting a noted tone for the evening.

Directly following the initial proceedings, the agenda was reviewed and after that the superintendent gave an update to the board.

In a somber tone, Cydney Vandercar read from a prepared statement.

“Thank you board chairman and good evening board members and community. Last weekend our country experienced multiple senseless acts of mass violence including the racially motivated mass shootings at a grocery store in a predominantly Black community in Buffalo and a predominantly Taiwanese church in Southern California. These tragic events remind us that we, as a nation, are too often confronted with hatred and violence. No one should have to fear going out to shop, to church, to school. Every incident of mass violence tears at the fabric of our country and is felt by all communities near and far. We are ready to support and hold space for our students and staff impacted by these terrible hate crimes in Eugene’s school district.”

Vandercar steered clear of labeling either shooting as an act of white supremacy. She also refrained from mentioning the victims.

With one final sentence before moving on, Vandercar said “We reaffirm our commitment to becoming an anti-racist school district and continuing our work to dismantle systems of racial injustice and oppression in education.”

Once she was done, the agenda turned over to reports from high school student representatives and then items raised by the audience. Again, ten community members were listed, but only nine gave public comments. Some speakers brought up the recent email that the board directed the interim to send to teachers about the option for students to opt-out of testing. 

Others echoed previous requests about the need to hire librarians, mental health professionals, and to review the pay of all employees so that the district can ensure no one is paid less than a living wage.

A few other speakers encouraged the board to hire a new superintendent who has the ability to truly create positive change within schools and as someone who would think outside the box. 

But just as the scheduled public comments concluded, a few audience members disrupted the meeting with outbursts, sparking what could only be described as a mini riot.

“Can we hear from one of the twenty conservative members of our community that are sitting in the audience tonight,”  Harry Sanger—a local community member who lost the 2021 school board election to current board member Laural O’Rourke—yelled from the audience. “Or actually even any member of the public rather than just your staff that you can talk to at any time,” voiced another member.

The 4J district has a current policy requiring community speakers to sign up in advance. If more than ten speakers sign up, 4J personnel randomly pick the speakers giving preference to those who have not previously made comments prior — a policy that O’Rourke believes helped fuel the incident. 

Laural O' Rourke's Facebook post reads "The escalation on May 18, 2022, did not need to happen. The Eugene 4J School District used the public comment time for their district business. The District staff controls who gets to speak at every meeting, and they chose to place five educators who were there to promote a curriculum that they had plenty of space to talk about in-depth later in the same Board Meeting. The public must have a voice. It's disrespectful to our public to restrict the ability to have a voice at our public meetings. There was space set aside on the agenda for staff and educators to talk to us. We can no longer step on the public's rights by taking away or restricting their ability to communicate with us"
Board member Laural O’Rourke’s public Facebook post.

At the same time, Ibra Taher, a Republican candidate for US Senate, stood up and raised his hand before interrupting Board Chair Judy Newman. “No Judy, there’s a point of order if you can listen. You will unlock ten parents, ten speakers,” Taher said. 

Quickly, Newman spoke over the audience and called a recess. The board did their best to leave the room, however, the audience was closer to the doors. On their way out of the room, O’Rourke was singled-out by those in the audience.

As she left, Sanger asked her if she wouldn’t speak to him due to the color of his skin. 

She responded by saying that the board was in recess and that she would refrain from speaking and she also asked the audience not to “incite” anything.  

During board meetings, members are not encouraged to interact with the community much at all. In most public board meetings, board members are able to give response statements in which they try to thank speakers, give short answers, or provide information about how to contact the board to ask further questions.

Once the room was clear of board members, the audience continued to have conversations and the webinar continued recording. Initially, the room was full of voices all speaking at the same time. Eventually one person walked up to an unattended microphone.

“Hello, if anybody would like to speak please step up, now is your time,” they said.

Sanger, after a brief announcement about a lost phone, addressed the room in a rather angry tone. 

“Erika Thessen,” Sanger started, mentioning an individual who gave public comments about the need to address racism, hate, and white supremacy within schools, “talked about the Buffalo shooting. The guy was a white supremacist.” 

Sanger continued by saying:

“That’s a real white supremacist he’s got a creed, he is against certain people because of how they look. Nobody in this room feels that way. Yet you label your political opponents as white supremacists, you toss around that word like it is nothing. That’s right and Laurel does that every single meeting and that’s why I made the comment I did.”

O’Rourke, a Black woman, has repeatedly been the target of white backlash as a result of being voted onto the board last fall. She has received an unknown amount of hate filled emails, along with three complaints, and a union grievance filed against her. 

She said that there are emails she “won’t open” because she knows “they are racist attacks” against her. In a public Facebook post, O’Rourke said that she feels “unsupported and unsafe” serving on the board.

The facebook post reads: "As a Black woman on the Eugene 4j school board, I have felt unsupported and unsafe the entire time l've been here-10 months. There are emails that I do not open because I know they are racist attacks against me. ****| am doing this work in a hostile work environment with zero safeguards**** The only response I have is here on Facebook! When attacked by staff or fellow board members, I have no options! IAM NOT THEIR BOSS OR IN THEIR CHAIN OF COMMAND! T am only 1/7 of Cydney's boss. That is it!! The attacks started early and have never stopped! The second week I was there, I was informed that the emporary superintendent Cydney Vandercar telling staff and fellow board members that I was attacking staff. I had re-asked a question that our hard-working SPED educators had asked several times and was being ignored. That's is called an unwanted question, not an attack. She removed all staff from Board meetings! With full cooperation from the Board chair Judy Newman and Martina Shabrum. It was my second week on the board. There have been 3 district complaints and a union grievance filed against me because of my work to fight systemic racial inequalities. The system is inherently biased. I don't work for 4J and am not supported by the district policy or procedure in any way. It feels to me like the district executive staff is actively working on trying to force me out. I have whispered support, messages of quiet support, but only a handful of people have stood next to me. If you won't say it out loud, you're part of the structure of systemic racism."
Board member Laural O’Rourke’s public Facebook post about her experience on the board as a Black woman.
This last bit of Laural's Facebook post reads "They are working to force me out and might do it. Eugene doesn't give a damn about racism; it supports white supremacy in their refusals to see their systemic racist structures. The silence is deafening Eugene!"
Board member Laural O’Rourke’s public Facebook post about her experience on the board as a Black woman.

Those ten speakers that Taher wanted “unlocked” to give public comments were there in support of gun rights and to protest the KGBB policy, one that would prohibit concealed carry weapons from being taken to school. The board was set to vote on it later on in the evening’s agenda. 

During the meeting as Sanger spoke to a predominately white audience, he was met with encouragement and applause.

“We need to stop that, we need to look at each other and see each other for who we are. Stop judging people because they’re against the proposed policy and nobody in any of these public comments is spoken to that. So that’s what the request is, for somebody to be able to speak to that. It has nothing to do with white supremacy, it has nothing to do with which side of the political aisle you’re on. It has to do with constitutional rights, specifically protected rights, constitutionally protected rights. Specifically the second amendment.”

The audience then continued to talk about how necessary it is to keep concealed guns in schools for protection. Referring to the Buffalo shootings as an act of white supremacy, another audience member said “so what, there are shootings in New York every single day.“ Falling on the often heard and tired adage that only “criminals will break the law,” they said that removing concealed weapons would make schools “soft targets.” 

“So we’re going to follow the law, are the criminals, no, they’re not,” said one individual “So what are you doing, you are endangering not only the lives of our children, but you staff, your teachers, everybody that’s there.”

Another individual claimed that in the past, teachers were “well instructed” on firearm safety and defense to protect students. They then went on to criticize the board.

“They’re getting paid, they’re being paid by the government to stay in that lunch room and not listen to us right now,” they said. Others shouted in agreement and called the board “cowards.” Some in the crowd excitedly called for the board to be removed.

However, according to board policy BHD D1, board members are not compensated for their time, though they are reimbursed for reasonable expenses incurred as part of serving on the board.

The gun rights group also failed to recognize that most mass shootings are committed by white assailants who are usually not considered “criminals” because of the color of their skin. Not only that, but, according to the FBI, hate crimes are on the rise following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The group ignored the fact that, during December of this school year, students at a few local high schools were reported to the police for bringing concealed weapons to school while threats of countrywide and planned school shootings spread on the internet. 

Recently, in May, one student was arrested at Willamette High School for trespassing and concealing a weapon in his pants. However, as pointed out in the statement to the Bethel school district, the weapon was never revealed and no threats were made against the school during that incident.

Furthermore, another student at North Eugene High School was arrested on Feb. 24, for a bias and hate crime. The student was sentenced to little more than a “slap on the wrist” for making hate-filled racist threats of violence to a Black student that were initially reported last December. Students at South Eugene High School reported racially based threats of violence to administrators at the same time, prompting the Eugene community to “Stand Up Against Hate” at both NEHS and SEHS on Dec. 15. 

Though EPD doesn’t release information about minors, the population of Eugene and the 4J school district is predominately white. And, in a few of the cases involving students reported for taking concealed weapons to school, it was determined that there were no potential threats of violence.

The teenager who was arrested at WHS earlier in May, was initially arrested for trespassing after school let out and  the teen was not a student there. They were also charged with unlawful possession of a firearm only after the cops searched him. The teenager was taken to the Serbu Juvenile Justice Center.

According to O’Rourke, the district was slow to take action in addressing the repeated outbursts by the pro-gun rights community during board meetings. During the meeting, the district did nothing to address the acts of intimidation of singling her out as a Black woman or the attempts to incite violence against her. She also said after the meeting, no one reached out to make sure she was alright and safe. 

Later in the weekend, O’Rourke was told by the district that she would be reimbursed for safe accommodations away from her home for her and her family. But due to the influx of tourists, she was unable to find an available place to stay.

So, though, Vandercar “reaffirmed” the districts stance on becoming anti-racist and making schools safe for everyone, so far, they have continued to react to white violence with the same status quo tactics: silence, denial, and ignorance.

The board was able to continue the May 18 regular meeting after returning from recess — but only after O’Rourke and Board Co-Chair, Maya Rabasa, de-escalated the situation. 

Directly upon returning from recess, Newman explained that the board understood that people may not have known how to sign up to give public comments. As a result, the board made a motion to amend the agenda, again, to delay voting in order to hear feedback from the community. She instructed individuals to sign up to give feedback on their website and encouraged people to call the district office with any questions.

This drew some criticism from the audience along with more interruptions but  Newman recognized and gave the floor to O’Rourke to speak. 

O’Rourke spoke and encouraged the community to learn how to sign-up to speak at board meetings and also attempted to address the barriers to the process for those who may not have email or internet access. She told the audience to call the “front desk” of the district for help and asked them to refrain from interrupting the meeting.

“So I understand that this is important and that you want to be heard and I think it’s very important and I’d like to preserve our American process in the sense that we have a voice in America,” O’Rourke said. “Which not every country has that voice, so, please follow this process. We also have to follow the public meetings laws, so yelling out will just mean that we; if this goes to this level again, we just have to adjourn.”

Public Meetings Law—as defined by the Oregon Department of Justice and the attorney general—sets the parameters of the types of meetings and records public bodies must maintain. 

As public boards decisions must be made openly, meetings and decisions must be held in public spaces, accessible to community members, and with proper notification. However, the law does not guarantee public participation. 

There are exceptions to public meetings due to the sensitive nature of the topics frequently discussed such as wage negotiations or the discipline of a student. 

Public Meetings laws state:

“The right of public attendance guaranteed by the Public Meetings Law does not include the right to participate by public testimony or comment.”

“Other statutes, rules, charters, ordinances, and bylaws outside the Public Meetings Law may require governing bodies to hear public testimony or comment on certain matters. But in the absence of such a requirement, a governing body may conduct a meeting without any public participation. Governing bodies voluntarily may allow limited public participation at their meetings.”

It goes on further to explain the authority of the board chair to impose reasonable restrictions as necessary in order to maintain efficiency during public meetings.

“The presiding officer has inherent authority to keep order and to impose any reasonable restrictions necessary for the efficient and orderly conduct of a meeting. If public participation is to be a part of the meeting, the presiding officer may regulate the order and length of appearances and limit appearances to presentations of relevant points. Any person who fails to comply with reasonable rules of conduct or who causes a disturbance may be asked or required to leave, and upon failure to do so becomes a trespasser. The law’s requirement that “all persons be permitted to attend any meeting” does not prevent governing bodies from maintaining order at meetings.”

Robert’s Rules are used by most board-run organizations like school boards, fraternal organizations, and governments. The rules, when followed, set up the public board parliamentary procedures, practices, and policies. 

The rules establish the way public board meetings “run smooth, orderly, and fairly” and describe how each member voices their opinion over any action suggested by the board. The rules also include voting to call recess or to end a meeting, to raise, table, delay indefinitely, or kill a motion, and whether or not an action may be rescinded.

Rabasa explained to the audience that she heard their frustrations about not being able to speak and have a dialogue about the topic but, again, encouraged the community to send their feedback directly to the board.

“One thing that’s really hard to understand, and I only say this because I have spent most of my time sitting over there and not here,” said Rabasa pointing to the audience. “Is that we can’t engage in a conversation now and that is super frustrating, I understand, but that’s why we are putting it to a later date.”

She told the group that they would have time to designate a group speaker to re-address the board, or to reach out directly to an individual board member of their choosing. Rabasa also explained that open dialog was not on the agenda and that further disruptions would only result in delaying the meeting.

Once the audience was settled, Rabasa motioned to table the vote on the KGBB policy. The motion passed and the vote was delayed until June 22 after receiving additional feedback from the community.

At this time, however, it’s not clear how the district and interim superintendent plan to keep 4J schools safe for students — especially if they can’t currently keep board meetings safe for board members.

According to a report in the Register Guard, Board Chair Newman noted that some of the audience members brought guns with them into the district meeting — even though children were present. This was a clear violation of the district’s bylaws but Newman never acted on them during the meeting.

The board voted on May 18 to amend the current policy prohibiting students from taking guns to school. However, no mention was made that firearms are currently prohibited from the 4J school district property.

Later the following Monday, May 23, a special session was held to discuss board safety. During the meeting, the board was told there is little they can do to prevent people—even those who pose a threat—from coming to a meeting. However, no mention was made over the state’s public meetings laws which state that public participation is not guaranteed and that the board may limit speakers or exclude them.

Failing to find adequate ways to handle the present issue, the board decided to begin meeting again virtually for the time being. Though it agreed to continue to work on increasing the safety of the board, especially for O’Rourke, so that together it could make the best decisions possible for all students in the 4J district.

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