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Every time Eli Prather heard the racial slur yelled in Bend High School’s crowded hallways last fall, he knew it was directed at him.
The 14-year-old freshman, one of the school’s few Black students, never saw who said it, but other students didn’t seem to care as they passed him. “Nobody’s really paying attention, because it doesn’t affect them,” said Eli, who identifies as queer.
Eli estimates the slur — the N-word — was aimed at him at least five times, but the harassment didn’t end there. Once, during study hall, a student approached him and compared him to a slave.
By semester’s end, he asked his mother, Chelsea Adamson, to take him out of school and place him in hybrid learning. She did.
“It’s obviously not a single, isolated event,” Eli said. “It’s obviously a really negative pattern, yet no one takes it seriously anyways.”
The Bulletin obtained data showing reported incidents of bias for Central Oregon’s six school districts. Since September, the districts have reported 148 incidents involving bias against different identities and beliefs, including sexual orientation, sex and gender, immigration status, ethnicity and religious beliefs.
Of those, 30 involved the use of the same racial slur that was aimed at Eli, according to the data.
From September to January in Bend-La Pine Schools, Central Oregon’s largest school district, there were 16 reports of the racial slur being used at a school. That represents 20% of the 77 bias reports the district recorded in that period.
The use of racial epithets was among the reasons five Central Oregon schools sought guidance from Bend-La Pine Schools board member Marcus LeGrand in February. Principals and administrators wanted him to advise students, and to show schools how they can help students of color cope with incidents of bias.
During meetings with students over three weeks, LeGrand, the district’s sole Black board member, noticed a clear and disturbing pattern: at nearly every school, students of color told him about their own experiences with racial slurs, he said.
One eighth grader asked him: “Have you ever felt like being a different race or a different color?”
“That brought tears to my eyes to hear that child say that,” said LeGrand, the Afro-Centric Program Coordinator at Central Oregon Community College.
Dismayed, but determined to amplify their stories, LeGrand leaned into the microphone and voiced his concerns at a public meeting Feb. 22.
“I’m so sick of this: ‘Well, my friends said it was OK, I could say it.’ It’s not OK. I don’t care if it ends in an A or an ER. You cannot say this word,” he said in the meeting, concluding his remarks with emphasis in every word: “It’s not. That. Hard.”
Amid heightened tension over equitable education, censorship and the teachings of race in schools, LeGrand and other Black leaders, educators and families in Central Oregon are now calling for greater accountability and for educators to confront head-on the repeated use of racist language in schools.
“It was attributed to Black people during slavery,” Erika McCalpine, Oregon State University’s faculty senate president and director of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Lab at OSU-Cascades in Bend, said of the racial slur. “It was meant to be an insult. It was meant to cause harm. To say it now, it has the same meaning as it did hundreds of years ago as it was used on slaves.”
Educators, administrators and community leaders interviewed for this story said they were alarmed by the latest string of incidents. Black community leaders, however, said they weren’t surprised, each noting their own experiences being called the racial slur in Central Oregon.
Even though she grew up in the south, in Alabama, McCalpine said the first time she was called the racial slur was in Central Oregon. Her son was also called the racial slur when he was a seventh-grader at Cascade Middle School in Bend, she said. In that case, school officials handled the situation well, she said.
The harassment falls disproportionately on the relatively few Black students in Central Oregon, educators and leaders said. Of the more than 32,000 students in Central Oregon’s six school districts, 203 students are Black or of African American descent, according to state enrollment data. That’s 0.6%.
Eli isn’t the only Black student in Bend-La Pine Schools to leave full-time, in-person learning after being harassed and called racial epithets.
In 2018, Kenny Adams, the executive director of the Father’s Group, a nonprofit focusing on racial equity for children, took two of his children out of Bend-La Pine schools due to harassment and racial epithets. They were 15 and 16 at the time.Dean Guernsey/Bend Bulletin
In 2018, Kenny Adams, the executive director of the Father’s Group, a nonprofit focusing on racial equity for children, took two of his children out of Bend-La Pine schools due to harassment and racial epithets, he said. They were 15 and 16 at the time.
As an eighth-grader, his daughter told him she had been called a racial slur by a student at Westside Village Magnet at Kingston School, and Adams said that when she reported this to a teacher, the teacher shrugged it off. When she started school at Bend High School, she told her father it was common to hear slurs around the school.
Adams’ other child, who is non-binary, also told him it was common to hear students in Bend High shouting racial slurs, he said.
Now 19, Adams’ daughter has graduated from online high school, he said. His other 17-year-old child is on track to graduate this year. Though Adams said it’s “infuriating” that his kids missed out on their high school experience due to bullying and slurs, he said removing them wasn’t a difficult decision.
“As parents, you’re supposed to do whatever you can to try to protect them,” he said. “You try to make sure that they have a safe learning environment … and if they’re feeling unsafe in that space, especially if it comes to issues of race, you listen and you bring things up to the powers that be.”
But there was another, tragic reason why Adams felt compelled to take his kids out of school.
In 2017, about a year before Adams’ children started online school, 14-year-old Deshaun Michael Isaiah Adderley, a Black student at Summit High School in Bend, died of suicide after he was bullied and racially harassed, according to court documents.
In 2019, his family sued Bend-La Pine Schools, Deschutes County and 10 Summit High students for wrongful death and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The lawsuit states the Summit students assaulted Adderley and called him names, including racial epithets.
“That was hard,” Adams said. “I’ve known families that had kids who did the same in Georgia and South Carolina and Florida. It’s something that you typically hear more often on the East Coast and in the South. But the Pacific Northwest has a problem.”
Bend-La Pine Schools Superintendent Steven Cook was not available for an interview with The Bulletin, but instead responded by answering questions via email.
“Hearing about bias incidents happening in our schools, such as the use of racial slurs, is disheartening to say the least,” he said in the email. “It’s unacceptable and frankly, even one bias incident is too many. We take each one very seriously — and have addressed each incident that has been reported.”
Cook acknowledged in the email that bias incidents and racial slurs have been reported at “a number” of schools in the district. He said the data the district shared about the slur was “unfortunately not surprising.”
Cook said the district could not comment on specific incidents reported in this story, citing student privacy rules. But the superintendent pointed to the district’s efforts over the previous three years in training administrators in “restorative practices, racial equity, trauma-informed practices, and implicit bias,” as “actions we have been taking across the district to address issues such as these.”
In addition, he pointed to the district’s new reporting system as an effort it’s taking to curb bias incidents in schools, saying: “You can’t solve the problem if you don’t know what’s going on.”
He added: “We are hopeful this attention will lead to more students coming forward and feeling empowered to report and share their stories.”
The school district said the reported use of the racial slur last fall occurred “at rates similar to bias incidents related to sex/gender and sexual orientation, and at a higher rate than bias reports related to disability, immigration status, ethnicity, religious beliefs, or neurodiversity.”
Kinsey Martin, the district’s diversity, equity and inclusion director, said those reports were investigated and appropriate action was taken.
Martin said the district is continuing to improve its new reporting systems for bias incidents, and added that some incidents might be going unreported due to safety concerns by families.
“I suspect that we don’t, as a staff, yet have the trust to even have the full number of what is happening,” she said of reported uses of racial epithets.
Martin disputed the notion that teachers would shrug off reported incidents of bias in Bend-La Pine Schools, but said the district is working with community partners to learn how to address these incidents, raise awareness and respond by connecting students and families with help.
Martin pointed to the LEAD Cohort — an acronym that stands for Leading for Equity and Anti-racist Dialogue — as an effort the district is making to combat bias in schools. The cohort’s goal is to address bias and diversity by designing lessons, activities and classrooms that show students how to engage in dialogue over identity and lived experiences.
“I think we all understand that we as a community are struggling to communicate effectively together across our differences,” Martin said. “How we do that in the classroom in a way that’s productive for kids isn’t teaching them what to think about a particular topic, it’s teaching them how to engage with one another.”
Last fall, Chelsea Adamson reached out to school and district officials after her son, Eli, told her he had been harassed. She said she told Martin, a Bend High vice principal, and a weight training teacher what had happened. Eli received counseling and was taken out of the weight training class, where he had faced bullying and intimidation.
Adamson ultimately put her son in a hybrid learning program. But there’s a cost: Eli said he’s falling behind in classes.
Eli attends just three classes in-person: French, theater and study hall. He has attention deficit disorder, and he said it’s difficult to concentrate on his classes with all the distractions around the house. Being away from his friends is wearing on his mental health, and despite the bullying he faced, he said he’d rather be in school.
“If something were to change, I would definitely be attending in-person school,” he said. “But, because of the way things are, they haven’t seemed to change.”
–Bryce Dole/Bend Bulletin
This content was originally published here.