Parents are calling for Portland Public Schools to send more resources to Roseway Heights Middle School so that school staff can regain control, after repeated serious fights have led to lockouts and lockins and prompted the principal to send five schoolwide emails regarding the violence.
Female students are also complaining that sexual harassment and unwanted touching by their peers is worse this fall than in pre-pandemic years and school staff have not taken the problem seriously. On Tuesday, students participated in a walkout organized by several eighth-grade girls to push school staff to do something about the harassment. It erupted into fighting, after students who opposed the walkout attacked the protesting students, several parents said.
Deziré Clarke Meindersee, mother of a sixth grader at the school, was standing outside Wednesday afternoon to show support students. “Kids are trying to take action that adults should be taking,” Clarke Meindersee said, noting that when she arrived at the school Tuesday to pick up her son because he felt unsafe, “it was very unclear who was in charge” – and it wasn’t the school administration.
“(Portland Public Schools) needs more support in terms of staffing,” Clarke Meindersee said.
Ruth Mcbee, 13, is one of the eighth graders who organized the walkout. Ruth said male students routinely smacked female students on the buttocks on “slap-ass Fridays” two years ago when she was in sixth grade. “I think not being at school for a while and then going back and realizing that all this … when we went back it honestly got worse,” Ruth said. “It made us realize, ‘I don’t want to have a community like this, I don’t feel safe here.’”
Roseway Heights Principal Brenda Fox would not speak to The Oregonian/OregonLive Wednesday or Thursday about the dysfunction on her watch. Portland Public Schools leaders were also unavailable to discuss the situation, communications advisor Ariane Le Chevallier wrote in an email.
Parents and a student also said racist comments and aggression were an ongoing problem at the school and played a role in some of the fights. The diverse neighborhood school enrolls about 600 students, roughly 40% white, 25% Latino, 15% Black and 15% Asian.
The school’s response to fighting has so far included splitting students into “houses” in order to separate certain students but it has not stopped the altercations, parents and students said.
According to Ruth, not only were students continuing to touch others’ buttocks this school year but boys were audibly discussing and rating girls’ breasts and buttocks. A male student punched one of Ruth’s friends in the breasts and crotch, according to Ruth’s father, Paxton McBee, and an anonymized description of the incident that the girls posted on social media while organizing the walkout.
Then on Friday, Ruth and her friends were in a physical education class when “a group of guys just started barking at us and calling us really rude things,” including calling Ruth and other girls who were wearing skirts “whore(s).” Teachers did little to address the situation, Ruth said: One told the girls to let him know if the behavior happened again and another suggested it was up to the girls to walk away from the situation.
“He said it like we did something wrong when we were the ones getting harassed,” Ruth said of the second teacher. Since adults at the school seemed unwilling to address the touching and harassment, Ruth said, “We just decided it was time to do something about it.”
Fox, who was named Roseway Heights principal in summer 2019, learned of the planned walkout and called the organizers to her office Monday to discuss it, Paxton Mcbee said. Fox asked what school staffers could do to support the students and the girls suggested school employees make the school a safe place and allow the student-led demonstration to happen, Mcbee said.
Fox acknowledged the unwanted touching occurred and the Friday ritual in particular, telling the girls that “slap-ass Fridays” happened when she was a student, Mcbee said.
Fox sent an email to parents Monday notifying them of the walkout and stating that “we were already aware of and had responded to the incidents in question, and had taken steps to address them following Portland Public Schools’ and Title IX policies and protocols.”
Meanwhile, Ruth said walkout organizers started to receive messages from male students who were accused of harassing or inappropriately touching girls, saying the girls made up the accounts and that their actions could ruin other students’ lives.
In an email to parents Tuesday evening after the walkout and the fighting that accompanied it, Fox wrote that “the majority of our students made safe choices and remained in class, and Roseway Heights staff did an amazing job supporting them. We had district staff who came to support our students and were in conversation with law enforcement, who were available to help if requested.” She noted that first responders came to the school to check on a student who was injured but ultimately the student’s parents decided the student could stay at school.
Some parents said Fox seemed to be implying walkout organizers were to blame for the fight and parents noted that altercations erupted inside the school, too.
Fox’s email sent contradictory messages by stressing safe student choices and amazing staff support – but also announcing that the school would open two hours late the next day “to allow our staff time to prepare” to discuss sexual harassment with students after “palpable” tensions.
The principal promised another message Wednesday with details about further steps but as of Thursday afternoon, parent Lainya Magaña said she had yet to receive it and she’d just heard from a fellow parent that there were more fights on Thursday.
Nathan Buehler, whose sixth grader attends the school, wrote in an email that students who disagreed over sexual harassment and the walkout triggered the violence Tuesday, “but it opened the floodgate and it was chaos from there. I went to go pick my son up and saw it myself … There were kids roving around the outside of the school shoving each other, apparently inside wasn’t much better with classrooms locking down, kids running in the halls shoving, punching and yelling at each other. My son was pushed to the ground and punched in the gut, after going inside briefly after the fights first started during his recess.”
“There are many layers to the problems at Roseway, and as I noted last month to the principal, it’s on all of us to help fix them,” Buehler said. “But there is clearly a leadership and resource gap at the school. They need attention and focus from the district, with skilled people on site to help in the short and long-term.”
Magaña said that her son and his classmates were thrilled to be back in class after more than a year of distance learning but now fear for their safety every time they set foot on campus.
“They want to see their friends and they want to be safe,” Magaña said. “They shouldn’t have to choose.”
Roseway parents approached Fox, Magaña said, and offered to provide an on-campus presence to watch for fights and help intervene if they saw tensions rise between students.
Last month a group of Louisiana men made national headlines with a similar initiative they call “Dads on Duty.” The idea is the men would provide positive role models for students in a high school where fights constantly broke out and disrupted classes.
As with the Louisiana program, Magaña said parents were hoping to provide a calming presence for students at Roseway Heights. But Parents were explicitly told they weren’t allowed inside the building due to COVID protocols.
That meant concerned Roseway Heights parents instead stood just off campus watching for signs of trouble. And every time parents approached Fox and other administrators about volunteering in other efforts, they heard, “We’ll let you know.”
“It appears they are not equipped to even allocate well-meaning parent resources,” Magaña said. She noted an engagement coach who worked exclusively at Roseway Heights two years ago now splits his time with George Middle School.
Reporter Eder Campuzano contributed to this report.
— Hillary Borrud; firstname.lastname@example.org; @hborrud
Subscribe to Oregonian/OregonLive newsletters and podcasts for the latest news and top stories.