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Bend-La Pine parents rally to voice frustration with school board; chair decries ‘harassment, intimidation’

(Update: Adding video, comments)

Melissa Barnes Dholakia says board members of color have been targeted

BEND, Ore (KTVZ) -- All across the nation, parents have voiced their concerns with school boards when it comes to COVID-19 mandates and some curriculum, including here in Central Oregon. And events of the past few weeks have raised the tenor of that debate, as evident both outside and inside the Bend-La Pine School Board meeting Tuesday evening.

A group known as Moms for Liberty staged a rally attended by dozens outside the Bend-La Pine Schools headquarters as the board met inside, once again in person and livestreamed, but without a public audience.

The group called the gathering to address their ongoing concerns with the district, and the policy-making school board.

One of the rally organizers, Shelly Baker, says the event was not a protest, but more of a public forum for parents to share their opinions on the district's handling of the pandemic and current curriculum.

"Parents wouldn't be showing up if everything was great," Baker said. "They're showing up because they are concerned."

Baker said she believes district-wide mask and vaccine mandates interfere with a parent's decision when it comes to their child.

"That's a parental rights issue," Baker said. "That's what Moms for Liberty is all about, protecting parental rights."

Parent Wendy Imel, who ran for a school board seat but lost, says she's not only concerned with mandates, but the curriculum as well.

"As a parent who wants my child to be prepared for his future I'm watching them prioritize non-educational priorities over math, english, literature, history, the things that are going to prepare him for an academic future," Imel said.

Imel says the focus does not appear to be education-driven.

"Instead my children are focusing on social and emotional learning," Imel said. "Political agendas, and an entire month of LGBTQ+ curriculum."

At the start of the board meeting, board Chair Melissa Barnes Dholakia read a statement, later supported by several colleagues, saying the board welcomes dialogue but decrying what she said has been harassment and intimidation, primarily focused, she said, on board members of color.

"In a democracy, elections represent the will of the people," Barnes Dholakia said. "But in the new playbook -- which we need to name as that, and as being national -- the next course of action is to harass and intimidate those who were elected, if they do not represent your views. This should be seen as intolerable for us, as Central Oregonians."

"Public engagement is a wonderful thing. Please don't take my words the wrong way," she said. "But that's not what this is. This is about harassment. This is about intimidation, about working to try to ensure people in elected office, who were elected by the majority, do not seek re-election, and to discourage others from running."

Barnes Dholakia asked two questions to the community: "Is this about being listened to, or being provided a stage? And what does it say about not only our community, but our nation, that our board members of color are those most frequently attacked?"

"We are open to discussion, to listening -- we have to be able to collaborate," she said. "But what is happening right now -- harassment, intimidation and targeting BIPOC board members -- is intolerable, and it cannot continue."

Here is a pre-rally news release from Moms for Liberty:

"Parent-led organization Moms for Liberty invites the concerned parents of Deschutes County to come together in a peaceful gathering today, October 12th at 4:30pm in front of the Bend-La Pine School District offices.

"On October 4, 2021, the Department of Justice announced a new initiative to address “harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” against school board members and employees. This comes just a week after the National School Board Association (NSBA) sent a letter to President Biden asking for help to stop parents from speaking out against local school boards, equating “parents” with “terrorists”. This letter reveals the NSBA’s contempt for parents and an unwillingness to hear their sincere concerns for their children.

"All over the nation, including here in Bend, parents have been voicing their concerns to their local school boards. These parents are concerned with what is being taught in the classroom and restrictive Covid measures.  They are finding curriculum, which is divisive, inappropriate, pornographic, and filled with racist theories that divide and breeds hostility.  As responsible parents, they are bringing their concerns to their local school boards. What parents are now waking up to is these school boards are not representing them but rather powerful entities such as the teachers’ unions and private contracted companies pushing specific political ideologies. Leaving parents to feel left out and silenced.  And now, threatened by law enforcement.

"Here in Bend, parents have felt the same disregard. For the entirety of the pandemic the Bend-La Pine school board held their meetings virtually even when not directed by the State. It took parent push back for the Board meetings to return to in-person back in July of 2021. Since then, they have held two in-person meetings and one listening session. In two of the three meetings, the board members walked off the stage during public comments. Since then, they are back to only offering public participation virtually as they meet in person as a board.  

"Today, October 12th at 4:30pm on the front lawn of the Bend-La Pine School District Offices, a group of parents will peacefully assemble in unity over the concern for our children’s education. Some parents will speak, sharing concerns, hopes and pleas in a public forum to the community at large and to all in attendance.

“Moms for Liberty is a group of moms, dads, grandparents, teachers, and community members of all backgrounds. We condemn any threats, threats of violence, intimidation, and other distasteful aggression towards school board members and staff. However, voicing concerns, criticizing policy, and holding school board members accountable for their speech, actions, and policy decisions is not the same thing. It is our duty as parents to hold our school boards accountable and parents have every right to do that without being labeled as a threat or likened to a domestic terrorist.”  Shelly Baker, Chapter Chair, Moms for Liberty-Deschutes County.

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Alec Nolan

Alec Nolan is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Alec here.

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Barney Lerten

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