Editor's note: this story has been updated to include the outcome of the Siletz Valley School Board meeting on Oct. 24, 2023.
Students at one of the few schools near the central Oregon coast serving the Siletz Reservation called for their school to honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Initially, administrators did not respond well. But the school board later voted to honor the day, as well as Orange Shirt Day, a day of remembrance for survivors of boarding schools and their families.
In culture class Monday, Oct. 9, a group of students at Siletz Valley School rose out of their seats together and walked out of the building. They texted friends in other classes, and soon more than one-quarter of high school students had left class.
They walked out to protest the fact that the school did not recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a holiday. Instead, students were required to attend classes.
“I want people to understand what Indigenous Peoples’ Day is and why we felt so strong about it,” said Zoey Howard, Siletz, a 16-year-old student who participated in the walkout. “It is a day of trauma. It’s meant to celebrate Indigenous people for what we’ve been through. And I want people to know that’s why we walked out.”
Located just outside the Siletz Reservation, the Siletz Valley School is a K-12 charter school with just over 200 kids enrolled, including about 75 in the high school. Both Native and non-Native students attend the school. The most recent data from Oregon Department of Education data shows that two years ago, 40% of students there were Indigenous. Multiple teachers and students estimated that that number is closer to 60% today. Other students from the Siletz Reservation attend school in nearby Toledo or Newport.
The walkout is not the only instance of Indigenous protest at the school. Members of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians tribal council fought to keep The Warriors as the mascot for Siletz Valley School, according to Siletz Councilwoman Sharon Edenfield. Edenfield spoke to Underscore as the grandmother of one of the students who walked out, not in her capacity as councilwoman.
"The tribe fought for it. They wanted to take it away, they wanted to change it," Edenfield said. "We had to bring legislators in and say 'a warrior is a prideful thing and we are fighting to keep this image.'"
Like that fight, the student walkout was successful: In a meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 24, the school board voted to observe the holiday moving forward. But it didn’t come without difficulty. Students say their principal berated them after the walk out.
In a special session of the board held with little notice last Wednesday, the board voted to investigate a parent’s complaint against Siletz Valley School Principal Casey Jackson over the incident, according to the board chair. And at the next monthly board meeting, held Oct. 24, parents called for Jackson's immediate resignation. The board voted to place her on paid administrative leave, pending the investigation.
This complaint is the seventh filed against Jackson in the last few months. Jackson’s diatribe was captured in a recording obtained by Underscore News.
‘We don’t feel supported as Native students’
On Oct. 10, the day after the walkout, the loud speaker went off during first period. Jackson, who is also superintendent of the small charter school, rattled off the names of a dozen students who participated in the walkout, asking them to report to the meeting room at the front of the school, according to interviews with four students.
As the students settled into chairs, Jackson stood and called them “cowards,” according to the audio recording. She told them she did not support their action, and that they should have written a formal letter with their request instead. And she said she doubted whether the students even knew it was Indigenous Peoples’ Day when they walked out of class.
“So now if I go to the board and say, ‘Hey, you know what, about 20 high schoolers decided that they didn’t want to speak up and they just wanted to be cowards and walk out of the building. Can you just let them have a free day from school?’” Jackson told the students. “They’re gonna be less likely to say, ‘You know what, let’s take it off the calendar.’”
She said that although she wanted to take away their off-campus privileges in response to the walkout, she wouldn’t because “you guys have such low respect for boundaries and rules and consequences.”
Jackson added that she knows most of their parents and was sure they wouldn’t support their kids’ actions. She then told the students to “sit on this humility yourselves.”
In an interview, Jackson defended her language.
“I can just say that there were no words that I used directed toward them as a person, just as actions taken,” Jackson told Underscore News.
Students who were there said they felt disrespected.
“Her calling us cowards, and asking us to sit in our humiliation — we didn’t have responses then because I think we were just shook that this principal was speaking at her kids like this,” Howard said. “We don’t feel supported as Native students by the administration.”
In fact, many parents and family members support the students.
“My grandma is a tribal council member and she was proud of what we did,” said Aurora Carmona, Siletz, a 16-year-old who participated in the walkout.
During the walkout, Carmona texted her grandmother to let her know what was going on. Her grandmother, Sharon Edenfield, Siletz, said she fully supported the students. When her daughter was growing up, Edenfield used to always keep her out of school for any tribal holiday, she said.
“You know I’m so proud of them. And that’s how change happens. It starts with our young ones, and they did it respectfully,” Edenfield said, speaking as a grandmother, not on behalf of the tribe. “I told them, you guys started a movement.”
Some parents organized together and filed a formal complaint against Jackson after the walkout, according to Siletz Valley School Board Chair Willie Worman, who is also mayor of the city of Siletz.
“I am extremely proud of my child and the others for having the courage to take a stand on what they feel is right,” Delina John, mother of Zoey Howard, told Underscore News. “As for me, as an Indigenous woman and mother, my heart hurt to hear how [principal Jackson] really feels about us. All the students were doing is protesting that they should be recognized for this holiday.”
A formal investigation
In the last few months, parents and teachers have filed seven formal complaints against Jackson related to multiple incidents, according to Worman. Jackson stepped in as superintendent at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year.
In an executive session with the Siletz Valley School Board on Oct. 18, the board voted to hire an attorney and launch an investigation into the complaints filed against Jackson, according to Worman.
Worman said that although the complaints range back to a few months ago, the board is only now getting around to addressing many of them, in part because some of the people involved were out on family medical leave. He said the latest complaints related to the walkout sparked a new sense of urgency.
“One complaint is basically that the leadership of the school is negligent in the way that they responded to the youth on this walkout for Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” Worman said. “And that’s kind of the one that put us in this position where it was time to call an attorney and figure out who’s doing what right and who’s not.”
Richard Canales, high school social studies teacher and senior advisor at Siletz Valley School, has filed and been involved with multiple complaints against Jackson. He filed his most recent complaint in August, relating to the principal’s “hostility and lack of responsiveness in planning the 2023-2024 class schedule,” according to Canales’ complaint.
In another incident in May 2023, a parent filed a complaint against Jackson that involved her treatment of a student in Canales’ class. The board reviewed this complaint, but Canales said the board mishandled the situation.
While visiting Canales’ classroom May 1 last year, a student was on their phone. According to Canales’ complaint, Jackson got intimidatingly near the student’s face and yelled at them to put away their phone.
When the school board reviewed the parent’s complaint, Canales said they didn’t ask for his testimony as a witness. Though he did end up speaking, he told Underscore News that was only because the parent who filed the complaint asked him to.
Canales said the resolution at the end of that meeting was for Jackson to apologize to the parent and student. He says that never happened.
“In that case, the board's resolution, inadequate as it was, was never even fulfilled,” Canales said. “I’d like for there to be greater accountability for the school board and administration.”
Worman disputed Canales’ description.
"I don't think anything was mishandled in my opinion,” Worman said. “We listened to all involved."
‘We did it’
At the board meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 24, it was standing room only. In the empty gym turned meeting room, seats were filled and more people leaned against walls. Board members said the crowd of over 50 was the largest they’d seen at their meetings. Community members were there to support the students. Many women in the audience wore their ribbon skirts.
Students had planned a walk-in — entering into the meeting as a united front to formally request that the school observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Kicking off the meeting with time for public comment, Smith stood before the crowd and the board with five other male high school students, dressed in ribbon shirts and beaded necklaces.
Smith asked the board to dedicate Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a holiday, along with Orange Shirt Day, a day of remembrance for survivors of boarding schools and their families, observed in the U.S. and Canada on Sept. 30.
“We would like to spend this day with our families participating in events and activities around this day,” Smith said. “Tribal students make up over half our school population and our school has never recognized this day in the same way they do other holidays such as Veterans Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. We want to recognize this day for the resilience of our people and our culture that has tried to be erased.”
After Smith spoke, six young women, four wearing ribbon skirts, stood at the front of the room. Carmona and Howard talked about their experiences in meetings following the walkout.
Carmona spoke about the students’ meeting with Jackson following the walkout. She described feeling “belittled, berated and insulted.”
“She started the meeting by asking if we even knew it was Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which is insulting,” Carmona said. “Our families were part of termination, the Indian Relocation Act, as well as survivors of boarding schools.”
Four community members spoke in front of the board, both in support of the student’s request to have Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognized and also calling for the termination or resignation of Jackson.
“We are asking for immediate termination or resignation,” said Tracy Viar, Siletz, speaking on behalf of a group of parents and community members who met twice after the walkout to discuss their concerns. “We no longer have faith in the current administration.”
Viar expressed her complete support of the students and asked the board to support their request to honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as did the three other speakers.
After public comment, the board went into executive session. An hour later, Worman called the meeting into session once again, he addressed the crowd.
“I want to say thank you to everyone for speaking out,” Worman said. “Stand up for what you believe, we appreciate that. And we all think you did the right thing.”
In session once more, board vice chair Reggie Butler Jr., Siltez, made a motion to put Jackson on paid administrative leave pending the investigation into the complaints filed against her. The motion passed unanimously and Jackson left the meeting.
Board member Justin Mason, Siletz, made two more motions. The first to honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day and the second to honor Orange Shirt Day. Both passed unanimously.
The crowd erupted into cheers of celebration. Siletz Valley School now has two calendar days with no school, in recognition of holidays honoring Indigenous people.
“We did it,” students said to each other, exchanging hugs and high fives.
Lead image: Siletz Valley School is a public charter, K-12 school with just over 200 enrolled students, including around 75 who are Indigenous. (Photo Courtesy of Dean Smith)
Editor's note: this story has been updated to include the outcome of the Siletz Valley School Board meeting on Oct. 24, 2023.