BLS listening session turns contentious over masks, board member comment

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A Thursday night meeting billed as a “listening session” with Bend-La Pine School Board leadership started out heated after much of the crowd took offense to a response from the board’s vice chairman.

The situation turned tense after the first public comment of the night, posed by Wendy Imel, a parent of two children in the district.

She initially asked why parents had to fight for transparency and accountability from the school board, saying she hadn’t received requested info on school curriculum for her kids. She also asked why the district has put off a decision on wearing masks this fall.

The comments were met with loud cheers from some of the nearly 200 people who gathered at Silver Rail Elementary.

But it was an immediate answer from Board Vice Chairman Marcus LeGrand – who defeated Imel in a contentious school board election in May – that set everything off.

“Ms. Imel, I got a question for you,” LeGrand replied after the applause had died down. “Being that you’re a professor of ethics, do you think it’s ethical the way you have harassed our board?”

There was no context given in the moment, but Imel has been an outspoken critic of the board and district policies – during the campaign for school board and since the election.

The situation erupted from there with continued outbursts from the audience directed at LeGrand and other board members present.

Some called his response “inappropriate,” while others demanded an apology saying “you’re accountable to us!”

One person called LeGrand an “a**hole.”

Julianne Repman, the district’s director of communications and safety who was on hand to facilitate the speakers, stepped up and tried to diffuse the situation.

Eventually, Repman forced the group into a five-minute break before the session could continue.

When the session resumed, an emotional LeGrand told the group that earlier in the day someone posted a comment on Facebook attacking a member of his family.

He did not elaborate.

As some in the audience questioned what that had to do with the listening session and Imel’s question, the meeting eventually got back on track.

On Friday, Repman said she thought the session went well after the initial hubbub.

“We were prepared for people to come with emotions and interests and a need to be heard,” she said. “We had a lot of energy at the beginning of the meeting, but after we came back from that it was a good meeting.”

Repman said she hoped the initial incident didn’t take away from the fact the board leaders were able to hear from so many people.

She also said she believed Imel and LeGrand spoke to each other after the listening session.

The meeting was expected to heavily focus on the issue of masks in schools after the school board said they planned to make a decision on August 10th.

But masks were even more top-of-mind after Gov. Kate Brown announced earlier in the day that students and staff would have to wear them when classes resume this fall.

Some in the crowd were masked themselves – some were not.

Some held signs that read “Masks are Child Abuse!” and “Freedom of Choice!”

Jon Haffner, who also ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the school board in May, scoffed at those ignoring the “true science,” cited the profits Pfizer was making off the vaccine and called out the diminished reputation of the CDC.

“Once again our kids’ education and well-being are on the chopping block as masks are back in fashion according to our overlords,” he said. “And if history is an indicator, you will blindly follow. Your excuse? The CDC, OEA, ODE, NEA said so.”

He called it the “height of ignorance to think we are uninformed parents simply because we are not immunologists.”

And he said the district would be faced with a “multi-pronged attack” of litigation, protests, and thousands of kids leaving the district.

“Keep masks off our kids,” he said. “Because my daughter’s not wearing one.”

Others pointed to the Crook County School District, where the superintendent said Thursday she would fight to retain local control on the issue and masks likely won’t be required even if the state mandates them.

Doug Merrill, the Chief Medical Officer for St. Charles Health System, spoke to the board members saying the hospital was “very glad Gov. Brown has made the decision for you, I think.”

“St. Charles leaders and providers strongly support the decision to mask children,” he said, adding that the current vaccination rate in Deschutes County (72%) wasn’t high enough for herd immunity against the new delta variant.

“If you remember nothing else I say tonight, please remember this: Patients infected with the delta variant have 1000 percent, 1000 percent more virus particles in them than did patients with the original virus,” he said. “It’s very, very infectious.”

Scott Stewart cited Oregon statutes, saying Brown’s orders have overstepped state laws and the school district didn’t have the authority to require masks in school.

“ORS 163.275, a person commits the crime of coercion – pay attention board – when the person compels or induces another person to engage in conduct from which the other person has a legal right to abstain and they do so by means of instilling fear,” he said.

One of the speakers made a subtle jab at some in the group, before citing some new statistics showing how easily the new delta variant can spread.

“It’s intimidating being in front of so many constitutional scholars,” he said. “I would advise the school board to continue to follow the science as it evolves.”

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