News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Accountability and a culture of respect

First of all, thanks are in order. Y’all out there in Sisters Country have been asking about this column for lo these many months. Thank you for caring. I’ve been dealing with a health problem and the brain-numbing medications that go with it.

Figured I’d ease back into the conversation by taking on something easy. Let’s say accountability, bullying, and racism in our community.

Accountability means taking responsibility for your actions. Failing that, it means being held to account by others.

Doing some research on bullying, I noticed that accountability came up as a major factor. According to the experts, adults need to create a “culture of respect” throughout the community to help reduce bullying in the schools.

Ideally, grownups show that bullying behavior is unacceptable regardless of age. Ditto discrimination and bigotry. Individuals and institutions alike are held accountable.

How are we doing on that in Sisters? I’m getting mixed signals.

A young woman of Asian descent, Sisters High School graduate Olivia Hougham, has spoken publicly about racism in our schools. Anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment has been aired publicly in Letters to the Editor of The Nugget and online as well. Unhoused people say that teenagers harass them; some teens even shot a vehicle up at an encampment.

Natalie Soleim, a Black student attending Sisters Middle School a few years back, experienced two-and-a-half months of bullying. We’ll hear more about the Soleim family’s story in an upcoming column. For now: the Oregon Department of Education investigated, concluding that discrimination and sexual harassment were involved, with “sufficient evidence of a discriminatory environment.”

Kids on the bus once hassled my son’s friend for wearing special clothes and hair ornaments. The horrible irony: It was Western Day at the elementary school, during Rodeo. The child’s offense? Wearing traditional regalia from their Native American heritage.

On the other hand, I’ve been texting with a family friend. Vicente Rebolledo is a graduating Sisters High School senior who plans to enlist in the Marine Corps and then attend college. He describes himself as Latino/Hispanic.

Vicente acknowledges that race-related language is used when kids are joking around; it doesn’t bother him.

“For racism, I can say that thankfully isn’t a problem in this town and in school,” Vicente wrote. “I’ve heard many people condemn it both on the right and left.”

That’s sure good to hear.

As a parent I’ve also heard from Sisters School District on the subject. The district, with its overwhelmingly white staff, sends vague emails assuring us that equity work is taking place.

From my POV — that of a mostly white lady with some multiracial heritage — district leaders and educators appear to work hard. But there’s a lack of information. Have individuals been held accountable for past acts and attitudes of sexism, racism, and other discrimination? Would that be unfairly punishing folks whose crime was one of ignorance rather than malice?

Not everyone who’s ended up on the privileged side of systemic problems deserves to be tarred and feathered. But we do need some kind of accountability. What does that look like? What should students, parents, and the community at large expect from teachers and administrators in these matters?

My wish list begins with transparency: honesty and information, including details. Hearing from people about their experiences with our public institutions, sometimes I’ve been downright shocked. I’m only hearing one side of these stories, though.

Could we be notified that Staff Person X has been let go or moved to another position due to their role in a bullying controversy or a racism incident? If the district creates an atmosphere conducive to discrimination, can we hear a public apology?

I spoke with Sisters School District Superintendent Curt Scholl, who explained why the specifics I dream of are not forthcoming: “It’s hard in a small district; if you speak too specifically, either you violate confidentiality with kids or with staff.”

Not only ethical but legal constraints keep the information from flowing freely.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and the community abhors a lack of believable specifics. In absence of such, Sisters tongues are wagging. Left to their own devices, folks make up their own stories.

The info-vacuum and infill gossip erode trust in community institutions, trust that is needed to build a culture of respect. So I talked with Curt about topics he does feel comfortable discussing, in regards to the school’s equity work (see related story).

What does accountability look like in our small town? As Curt reminded me, it has to be balanced with privacy. I hope we move forward visibly on equity issues as a nation and throughout Sisters Country, with positive change and personal responsibility.

The community should get a say in what accountability looks like. I hope it’s not tar and feathers. But I hope it’s something.

 

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