The Bethel School District in Oregon is facing serious pushback after deciding to cancel Valentine's Day and all other holidays this year, resulting in no class celebrations or card exchanges. Instead, the district renamed the day "Buddy Day" and had plans to teach students about kindness and friendship. The school board believes they are being "inclusive" to children who do not celebrate Christian holidays by just canceling or renaming them all. Parents all over the district were incensed and showed up to protest the decision at a recent board meeting.
Busy mom Amanda Loomis made sure she went to voice her opinion. "I am tired of every fun event and holiday being taken away from our kids," she told PJM. Loomis was one of a large crowd of parents who filled the district office and spilled into the hallway to protest the holiday decision. Parents reported feeling unwelcomed by school board members who refused to change venues to accommodate the large crowd even after being notified to expect a large audience. "They tried to dismiss the meeting before anyone was even able to come in to talk," said Loomis. "They literally turned their backs to us and hardly acknowledged anyone. I felt very unwelcome."
One school board member, Debi Farr, posted on Facebook after the meeting that the board felt threatened by the crowd. Parents in attendance heartily dispute that claim.
"I did not see anyone or hear anyone in the crowd being rude at all," Loomis responded. "I thought everyone in the crowd was calm and polite for the amount of people in the small space. Even children were there and they were very well behaved." Video of the event confirms Loomis's account. Rachel Hansen, another district parent, was filming and caught a passionate and sometimes loud but earnest crowd addressing their elected officials.
Hansen was displeased with the response parents received. "I attended the meeting because I'm not happy with the fact that our school board has decided to take away holiday celebrations from the schools. Not only have they made this decision, which I completely disagree with, but they made it without taking into consideration parent concerns," she said. "In fact, it's been a slow and quiet transition the last few years. Halloween costumes weren't allowed after years and years of children wearing them and parading around classrooms." Others also noted that holiday books were being slowly removed from the school library.
Hansen described the meeting as chaotic, "but not because of the parents but because we weren't allowed in the boardroom and because we were too great a number to fit. The board had been given notice that a good number of parents would be attending and we asked for a bigger venue to accommodate, but the board refused," said Hansen. "One of the board members even went so far as to call 911 due to disorderly [conduct] which couldn't have been further from the truth."
In Hansen's estimation, it was the board that behaved badly. "The board reacted with complete and utter disrespect with one board member literally turning his back to the first speaker, refusing to listen. It was disgraceful," she said.
The Bethel School Board's response is a typical government reaction to finding out people don't like something they did. Most boards hate hearing criticism and label it "threatening" so they don't have to continue listening. This is a common tactic used by elected officials to avoid hearing from angry constituents.
Some will even go so far as to break state law to avoid hearing from voters.
It appears that the Bethel School District may have done just that.
The very first rule of the Oregon Open Meetings Act
states clearly that all public meetings are to be open to the public and provide accommodations. If there isn't enough space, the board is responsible for finding space and hearing each citizen's concern. The Bethel board's refusal to provide space, even when warned ahead of the meeting that they needed to, could be a violation of state law. Further, attempting to shut down a meeting before public comment has been made is also a violation of state law. Thankfully, the board decided to reschedule the meeting for later in the week in a bigger location, but not before attempting to get away with not naming a new date. The crowd refused to let that happen and forced them to name a date and time. Several parents are still concerned they will change the venue without notice.