The Washougal Association of Educators found itself caught in an online controversy regarding the Black Lives Matter movement this week, after posting support for students of color to its Facebook page.
The teachers union posted the following to its Facebook page on Sept. 14: “Washougal Association of Educators believes in creating a safe and inclusive environment for students. It is especially important, specifically for the Black community of Washougal, to know that we see them, we feel their grief, we value them, and that we believe their lives matter and their families lives matter.”
A logo representing Black Lives Matter, a decentralized social movement protesting systemic racism, particularly in police and judicial institutions, and racially motivated violence against Black people, accompanied the text.
On Sept. 15, a man named Vance Murphy — who according to his Twitter profile lives in southwest Washington — posted a screenshot of the WAE’s statement along with contact information for Washougal School District Superintendent Mary Templeton and said the thought process behind the post was “racist.”
Murphy did not respond to the Post-Record’s requests for comment.
A Washougal High School student responded to Murphy’s post, writing that “schools have no place supporting a Marxist- or communist-based organization.” That student declined to talk about their views with the Post-Record, saying, “I already get enough harassment as it is. People around here have gotten death threats because of what they stand for, and I don’t think I could handle that.”
The WAE deleted the post later that day and replaced it with another.
“WAE had only positive intent in a recent Facebook post showing support for our Black community and an individual WAE member who is being publicly and personally targeted on social media,” the second post reads. “It was not our intent to align ourselves with the national Black Lives Matter organization. We regret not making that clear in our original post. We stand firmly behind (our original) statement. WAE does not condone violence associated with any organization. We are committed to continuing our equity work with the Washougal School District. We are sorry the post caused controversy within the Washougal community.”
WAE president Eric Engrbretson declined the Post-Record’s request for comment on the matter, saying, “We feel that the latest post clarifies our intent and our apologies for creating controversy.”
Washougal High teacher receives online ‘hate messages’
Washougal High School science teacher Charlotte Lartey told the Post-Record that the first WAE post originated out of her experiences during the first week of the 2020-21 school year.
Lartey, the only Black teacher at Washougal High, said that on Sept. 2, the first day of school in the Washougal district, at least four parents requested their children transfer out of her class because they didn’t approve of the “Black Lives Matter” sign on her classroom wall.
“The issue with some parents is that they believe it is a political message and therefore inappropriate,” Lartey said. “They asked me to take it down, and when I did not they went to the district office and requested the district ask me to take it down, and they have not, nor would they dare.”
Then, according to Lartey, a community member posted the syllabus from her health class on Facebook, “and the community was up in arms because the little bitmoji on my syllabus has a shirt that says ‘BLM.'”
“There was a lot of public slandering directed at me, a lot of talk about indoctrination, calls for my dismissal from the district and personal hate messages on Facebook,” Lartey said. “A few days later, the lady deleted that post. I have received personal Facebook messages from random community members telling me to stop spreading lies about racism because there is no racism in Washougal. One lady told me they ‘don’t allow Antifa in their town.'”
Lartey said she met with school district and teachers’ union leaders in an attempt to resolve the issues, and that district officials decided to make an anti-racism and equity statement, “even though I explained that the community needs to be educated about Black Lives Matter, like, yesterday.”
Lartey said the union then posted its original statement because “(the school district) is not able to commit to educating the community and ending the spread of prejudice and hatred being directed at me, and extending to the Black community of Washougal.”
“I tried to explain that making a public post of support and then taking the post down is the worst thing we could have done to show support,” she said. “I am very disappointed in both the (district) and union), though I know intentions are in the right place.”
District: ‘We do not support any political ideals or movements’
School district leaders sent a statement to the Post-Record saying the district has received feedback about the union’s original post from community members, students “and a few (people) who do not appear to be associated with our community.”
“The confusion about who posted it caused them to reach out to us with their perspectives,” the district stated. “The perspectives shared about the WAE post run the gamut from supportive to not supportive. To those who have reached out, we have clarified the origin of the post, and then also have shared the exciting equity work we’re engaged in, and have also directed those providing feedback to our equity statements on our website. We hope to help them understand we have more work in front of us on the topic of equity.”
The district stated that it does “not support any political ideals or movements.”
“Additionally, we do not invest in polarized and charged atmospheres that are prevalent in local and national communities,” the district stated. “This is clearly not our work. What we do, however, is support the work around equity, diversity and inclusion. The school board adopted a strategic plan that identifies equity as one of our pillars for the success of our district. To that end, we are committed to disrupting systems which perpetuate intuitional biases and oppressive practices. Our data is clear that some of our groups of students have not been experiencing the same opportunity and outcomes. WSD is committed to ensuring that our schoolhouses are free of hate, prejudice and racism. We are further committed to seeing each one of our students known, nurtured and challenged to rise.”
Students say they do not feel supported
Washougal High senior Jayden Ross said he was disappointed the union removed its original post.
“(The post was) the only thing they ever really said showing that they support Black Lives Matter and that they care about my life, and it feels like it was taken down because they can’t stand behind what they said and/or they’re afraid to stand behind what they said,” Ross told the Post-Record.
“There are amazing teachers and amazing staff members that I love and would give my life for,” he added. “On the flipside, though, there is definitely (racism) inside the Washougal School District. When we were in the building I probably heard the N-word every day, and the reason I don’t go to the administration about it every time is because I feel like they just listened to me and didn’t actually do anything about it. It got annoying, so I stopped going.”
Washougal resident Josh McKinney, whose daughter, Olivia, a Washougal High senior, established the school’s Black Student Union in 2018, said he understands the criticism over the union’s original post.
“I think the words are fine, but I don’t agree with the (usage) of the Black Lives Matter symbol. I’m Black, but I don’t support the Black Lives Matter movement because of its political agendas,” McKinney said. “Of course, I support the fact that Black lives do matter, and the reforms of the systemic racism which are so prevalent, and some sort of law enforcement reform. I love the message. I think they wrote it to be purposefully inoffensive — until they included the logo.”
Olivia McKinney said that she “feels supported educationally, but socially, not as much” by the Washougal School District.
“I wanted to start the Black Student Union at Washougal because I wanted to feel represented and supported,” she said. “Once Ms. Lartey started working there, I finally had a chance to have a teacher who understands what it is like and who actually wants to help. I wanted to develop a community with my peers who understand what it is like to hear and experience racism and give them a place to comfortably express their concerns. I wanted to create a space where these kids — kids like me — could come and share their stories without judgment, a place where we could make changes and have representation in an effort to better the Washougal community. (I wanted to) make it safer and more comfortable for students of color in the future.”
Susan Blain, whose daughter, Kabiah, is a junior at Washougal High, said she was “horrified” by some of the comments that appeared under the WAE’s original post.
“I don’t understand why someone would think it’s a bad thing to teach kids to treat everyone fairly. It’s ‘Decent Human Being 101,'” she said. “I think that ‘Black Lives Matter’ is maybe perceived as a Black Panther agenda, or some radical, Antifa-like, going-to-burn-everything-down group. I see firsthand the challenges that our Black students and community members face in addition to everything else we have to conquer in this world. That’s the purpose behind it. We want to make people aware.”