June 20, 2024

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

A Black woman’s resignation from the racist Eugene 4J school board

5 min read
Laural O'Rourke: "As a Black student raised in the Eugene 4J School District, I was taught to believe that my life did not matter. That is the message we continue to teach Black, Indigenous, and Special Education children today in the Eugene 4J School District. It is also a message that the white community in Eugene and many school board members have tried to impose on me during my service."

by Laural O’Rourke

I am writing to resign my position as a member of the Eugene 4J school board. I was inspired to run for the school board by the protests and activism that emerged after law enforcement murdered George Floyd. Seeing signs that said, “Black Lives Matter” made me take a step back and ask myself, “Could my life matter? Is real change happening? Can I help this stuck needle keep moving?” Another factor contributing to my run for the school board is the constant and diligent effort required for me to ensure that this district adhered to federal regulations for my three children with Individual Education Plans (IEPs). It is regrettable that educators and administration in this district have caused and continue to cause irreparable harm to our Black and Special Education children.

As a Black student raised in the Eugene 4J School District, I was taught to believe that my life did not matter. That is the message we continue to teach Black, Indigenous, and Special Education children today in the Eugene 4J School District. It is also a message that the white community in Eugene and many school board members have tried to impose on me during my service.

Here is a link to documents I believe may be helpful for new board members to understand the nature of safety and security in your new positions: (redacted). This link contains sensitive board and district information and cannot be shared or forwarded.

Included in that folder is a threat assessment provided to the school district in 2022 in response to the racist mobbing against me. The threat assessment team also provided an individualized report for me, in which they evaluated my experience of race-based threats and mobbing as a board member and determined that those activities pose a medium-high risk to my physical safety. I am not including my personal assessment because it contains details about my home security efforts.

In the school district assessment, included in the folder, the threat assessment team made a number of safety recommendations: (four redactions). Board Member Gordon Lafer, a white man, said this would be uncomfortable to him, prioritizing his comfort over my safety. The board refused to implement any of the recommended safety measures and continues not to follow those recommendations.

This meant that when the board returned to in-person meetings, I was forced to choose between my physical safety and being segregated from meetings, restricted to appearing online.

On November 21, 2022, the Lane County Circuit Court issued an order (included in the folder) recognizing that I have been the “victim of intimidation, threats of violence, and communications which would give a reasonable person in [my] position a genuine fear that release of my personal information would present a danger to” myself and my family. The court and the Secretary of State recognized that my personal contact information needed to be kept confidential because the mobbing and harassment targeted at me to attempt to silence me from talking about racism against Black and Indigenous people.

Board policy and to my understanding, Oregon and federal law, also expect us to identify and correct bias issues like racism when we see it to create a safe educational environment. I did not know when I was first elected that Oregon law protects school board members from retaliation in some situations, including when we disclose what we believe to be violations of law, rule, or regulation, like racist behavior, under ORS 659A.203. I also did not know that Oregon public meetings law requires board members to preserve records even when they communicate outside of formal meetings.

Despite that, when I attempted to speak in meetings, I was often interrupted, and the board chair abruptly shut down two meetings early, against meeting policy, to avoid or interrupt my comments or requests for meeting items. Board members communicated using Signal, and openly admitted to deleting records, which I believe include records related to retaliation and harassment against me.

It has been a terrifying experience to be a Eugene 4J School Board member as a Black woman. While much of the racist harassment directed at me has been in the form of white tears, complaints about me identifying racism (as though it is a violent act for a Black person to ask for respectful treatment), and other attempts to silence me, threat assessment professionals, the court, and the Secretary of State have all confirmed this poses a real threat to me and my family.

This experience has made board participation inaccessible to me. The only reasons it is inaccessible are the racist stereotypes about me as a Black woman and the white supremacist attempts to silence and shame conversations around racism, and thereby protect racism. This includes the respectably politic displayed by local Black, Asian, Latine, and Indigenous leaders and white elected officials that ignored all of my requests for support.

I understand there have been objections to my identifying racism and that some people have tried to characterize me as personally attacking individuals when l label racism. I have also heard some say that certain people, such as people of color, are not able to weaponize whiteness or proximity to whiteness against me because of their race. In my experience, it is possible for people to weaponize whiteness or proximity to whiteness no matter what their race is. Frankly, when my and my family’s safety is at risk, it doubles that risk to tone police my attempts to ask for safe and respectful treatment or segregate that I am only allowed to ask for safety from certain groups, but not others.

The Eugene 4J School Board along with Superintendent Andy Dye and much of the executive district leadership needs to create a safe educational environment for Black and Indigenous students, and instead, so far, it has instead chosen to model segregating, tone policing, and ostracizing me, its only Black board member. I hope that the incoming board does better. l hope to one day live in a community that believes that Black lives, including my own, do matter.

Your only job as a school board member is to create better outcomes for our students. If you keep that as your mantra, you will not fail, you cannot succumb to the toxic manipulation.

Thank you for your service. As Maya Angelou would say, you know better now. Do better.

The letter of resignation was sent July 8, 2023 to school board members and the 4J superintendent, chief of staff, and chief administrative officer. The illustration is adapted from the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence guide, Building a Multi-Ethnic, Inclusive & Antiracist Organization.

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