Underscore News and ICT

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. It didn’t go well.

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.'”

In a meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 24, the school board will likely decide whether the school will observe the holiday moving forward. 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 for berating students who walked out, according to the board chair. That 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.

Casey Jackson, superintendent and principal of the Siletz Valley School. Photo from Siletz Valley School website

“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 Edenfield, her grandmother, to let her know what was going on. Edenfield, Siletz, said she fully supported the students. She told Underscore that when her daughter was growing up, she would keep her out of school for any tribal holiday.

“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. “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 and principal 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.”

At the next monthly board meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 24, students are planning a walk-in — entering into the meeting as a united front and presenting in front of the board to formally request that Indigenous Peoples’ Day be observed and the school close on that day moving forward.

After the students present, the board will likely vote on that question, according to Worman.

“I can tell you that I support it, most people I know from Siletz support it,” Worman said. “I would be floored if we didn’t agree with the students.”

With many parents and teachers planning to attend, the meeting will likely be crowded.

“We want to tell the board members how we thought it was wrong that we had school on Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” said Dean Smith, Siletz, another 16-year-old involved in the walkout. “And how they work for a Native school and they never thought about having that day off.”

Lead image: Siletz Valley School is a public charter, K-12 school with just over 200 enrolled students, around 75 of which are Indigenous. (Photo Courtesy of Dean Smith)

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Nika is a journalist with a passion for working to center the voices and experiences of communities often left behind in mainstream media coverage. Of Osage and Oneida Nations descent, with Northern European...