Camas parents defend school board, district’s anti-racism work

Speakers say vocal critics of Camas School District’s equity policy ‘do not represent majority of Camas parents’

In the weeks following a heated May 10 Camas School Board meeting featuring a group of vocal Camas-area residents who railed against the school district’s “woke” agenda, COVID-19 mask mandates, remote learning and racial justice and equity programs, dozens of Camas parents have written letters and spoken out in defense of the school district and its elected school board officials.

“Please keep in mind that these people are a vocal minority and do not represent the views of the majority of the Camas community. Our family moved here seven years ago specifically for the Camas schools and we wholeheartedly support the board members, the CSD administrators and the teachers, who are all doing a wonderful job,” Camas parent Ken O’Day wrote in a May 24 letter to the school board. “What we are witnessing happening here in Camas is part of a larger effort organized on social media to wage an extremist culture war against school boards across the country … I strongly encourage you not to be bullied by these people, and I pledge to support each and every one of you for reelection. It is imperative that we do not let these people intimidate their way into vacating a board seat so they can attempt to hijack our school board and undo all the wonderful progress that has been made by the board and administrators to make (the district) what it is today.”

Nearly two dozen parents who have written to the school board and spoken at recent board meetings agree with O’Day’s sentiments.

“I was disgusted and angered by the comments I heard from some members of our community,” Danacia Jones, the parent of three children in Camas schools, wrote to the school board. “I appreciate the hours and hours of planning and research you all must have spent to keep our kids safe (through the pandemic). I feel confident you will continue to use science as the foundation to guide future decisions regarding masking and other precautions and not the rantings of a self-appointed ‘pediatric expert’ such as (the Washougal pediatric health care provider who) spoke at the (May 10) meeting. As an emergency medicine Physician Assistant I was appalled by this person and his blatant disregard for basic disease control such as masking … Please know that he is an outlier in the medical community and not well regarded professionally.”

Jones added a thank-you to the board for “promoting inclusivity and updating curriculum to more accurately teach history” and said “we cannot avoid repeating historical mistakes if these mistakes are swept under the rug.”

“Please know you have more supporters than critics and we will make our voices heard through our votes,” Jones added.

Another Camas parent, Charity Feb, who said she and her two children contracted COVID-19 early in the pandemic and have had lasting symptoms, or “long COVID,” also wrote to the school board after witnessing the speakers at the May 10 meeting — nearly all of whom refused to wear masks per the district’s in-person meeting rules.

“I just want to express my sympathy for what you had to endure last night and to tell you I dearly hope what you witnessed was a very loud minority — about masks, equity education, the (Discover Recovery drug rehabilitation facility being proposed for a building next to a Camas elementary school), all of it,” Feb wrote to the board. “I homeschool my kids right now simply because I have always wanted to, but I voted for the levy, and I’m rooting for you guys.”

Several of the parents thanked the school board for being so dedicated to COVID-19 safety precautions throughout the 2020-21 school year.

“The only way we were even slightly comfortable sending our high schoolers back for the (four days of in-person learning) was because masks have been mandated along with all of the other precautions and measures the district has put in place,” wrote parent Laurie Daly to the board on May 24. “We are also extremely supportive of the way CSD strives for equality and equity and continues to seek and find ways to do this.”

WA’s 2020 ‘Teacher of the Year’ speaks in support of equity policy

The board has received at least 22 comments in written and oral form since the May 10 meeting in support of the district’s COVID-19 safety procedures and equity, inclusion policies. Some of those comments have been from teachers in the district as well as parents.

At the board’s June 14 meeting, Camas special education teacher Amy Campbell — named Washington state’s 2020 Teacher of the Year — spoke during the board’s public comments period and praised the school board and district administrators for supporting her work to improve inclusion and access for all students.

“I am grateful for your consideration of educational equity within our policies and our programs,” Campbell said.

When she first began teaching in the district 13 years ago, Campbell said she saw a copy of an assessment of student learning hanging on a wall, showing clear disparities in academic achievement based on race, ability and income levels.

“We called it an achievement gap, and we had a choice: Armed with this information, we either had to believe it was a failing of our students or a shortcoming of our system,” Campbell said. “I’ve come to know our students are all capable of amazing things … We have an obligation to ensure that our schools (offer) pathways to success for all of our students. It’s not easy work, but I want to thank you for your commitment and service.”

Most parents who spoke at the June 14 board meeting agreed with Campbell and said they, too, supported the district’s equity, diversity and inclusion policy.

Erica Stupfel, a mother of two Camas students who said she has lived in Camas since 1977, said she attended her first school board meeting in May, when the anti-mask, anti-equity policy speakers dominated the board’s public comments portion of the meeting.

Stupfel said she does not enjoy public speaking but felt compelled to push through her discomfort after attending the May school board meeting.

“The inner turmoil I felt sitting there in that meeting and in the weeks after made it impossible to not stand before you tonight,” Stupfel told the school board on June 14. “I’m here to support our district’s equity and anti-racism work. Talking about race and how it affects people differently can help our children and teens navigate the systems of oppression that are undeniably present in our nation today.”

Stupfel said she cares deeply about nurturing a learning environment for all children, even if that might make her white children sometimes feel uncomfortable.

“This is where growth happens and it’s good — so good — to be curious and empathetic toward experiences that are different from ours,” Stupfel said. “I trust our teachers to navigate these conversations with empathy and safety … and I am 100 percent in support of shifting curricula to integrate honest understanding of our history and how the outcomes of those decisions have ongoing effects for minorities.”

Stupfel invited other Camas community members to “be curious and not angry” and to be “ready to listen not just defend.”

To the school board, she said: “Your supporters may not be the loudest or the boldest, but we are here and we are vast in our numbers and strong in our convictions to promote equity in our homes as well as in our schools.”

Dozens of parents have written to the school board to express support for the district’s COVID-19 safety precautions and equity policy.

“As a third generation Camasonian raising the fourth (generation), I have a vested interest in this community,” Grant Gilson wrote in a May 24 letter to the board. “The most recent data shows there are clear and irrefutable disparities that disproportionately affect our children of color and children farthest from opportunity in the Camas School District. The work and emphasis the school board and district has placed on diversity, equity and inclusion is imperative in reducing disparities and to continue to offer the high-level of excellence our community and parents have become (used to).”

“We must come together as a community, get uncomfortable and embrace diversity, equity and inclusion to ensure all children in our school district have a positive and upward trajectory in life,” Gilson added.

Loud crowd shouts outside as speakers defend school board

The vast majority of parents who spoke at the school board’s June 14 meeting supported the district’s COVID-19 response and nearly 3-year-old equity, inclusion and diversity policy. As they spoke, a mostly anti-mask and anti-equity policy crowd gathered outside the school board meeting, often interrupting the speakers inside with their loud shouts and cheers.

“I’ll see if I can talk louder (than those outside),” said Lisa Bullard, a Camas mother who said she had signed up to speak to the board in person on June 14 to show support for the district’s equity plan.

Saying she had a choice and the privilege to stay home and be comfortable instead of coming to speak at a meeting that would likely “be a tense environment to walk into,” Bullard said she believed children learned more from actions than words.

“I can tell (my children) that equity is important … but my words would ring empty if I didn’t show them with my actions, even when it’s uncomfortable.”

Bullard said she wanted her children to see adults doing better and living the words they spoke.

“I am so grateful to the teachers, administration and this school board for choosing to be open to this work … to want to do better for all in this community,” Bullard said. “My children see that and learn empathy, courage. They learn they matter and so do all (the children) around them that have been historically oppressed.”

‘This is not representative of the majority of Camas parents’

Many who wrote to the board after the May 10 meeting insisted the speakers who railed against the district’s equity policy and COVID-19 precautions do not represent the majority of Camas parents.

Camas parent Aunna Elm said in a letter to the school board that she had watched the May 10 school board meeting online and was “horrified at the right-wing extremist group that refused to mask and yelled at and berated our board members and staff.”

“Their objections to our district’s important equity work and to our district’s adherence to public health guidelines in a pandemic were extremely concerning and disturbing,” Elm said. “These parents’ efforts to force unmasking in public schools and otherwise pretend the pandemic doesn’t exist … as well as red herring attacks on critical race theory … is part of a national right-wing extremist movement and they should not be allowed to bully our district leadership and staff.”

“I am infuriated with those who disparage the good name of our schools, staff and community and stand in firm opposition to those who work to destroy the foundation of knowledge, fact, science, compassion, inclusivity, diversity and progress upon which Camas is built,” Camas parent Kimberly Koch-Hawk wrote to the school board after the May 10 meeting. “There is much to be proud of and much work to do to continue to grow … but bickering and name-calling are a shameful waste of time and take energy and time that should be used for good work … what a waste.”

“This is not representative of the majority of Camas parents,” Koch-Hawk added. “It is tragic that a small, very vocal group has marred the good reputation of our community, educational staff and (school) board.”

Shay Shemesh, who said he has lived in Camas for six years and has three young children attending Camas schools, read his wife’s comments during the June 14 board meeting and said she was concerned that the people who had spoken during the May 10 and other school board meetings wanted to “spread fear and misinformation to sow discord.”

“If we want to be outraged, perhaps our collective outrage should be directed at racism and how it persists in our schools and our community today — and then we can focus on our efforts in eliminating it,” Shemesh said.

“If you don’t think we have a problem with racism in this community, perhaps you should listen to some of the experiences of the children of color in our community,” he added. “I want my children to think critically about the world around them and about power dynamics. … Anti-racism is not anti-white. It is about examining power structures in our society and seeing where and how racism exists today,” he added, urging the school board to “stay the course. Do not allow a small group of people as vocal and organized as they may be to speak for the majority in our community who support the goal of equitable education and truly seeing and serving each student.”

“I’m not afraid of anti-racism work. I’m not afraid of equity and inclusion. I think we are better as people and a community because of them,” Shemesh said. “I am standing up tonight to say many of the comments I’ve been hearing that seem to suggest the work toward equity, inclusion and toward anti-racism are misguided … These are not the viewpoints of many people I know in this community.”