African American teacher settles with Forest Grove

Meysha Harville faced racial discrimination at Forest Grove High School

Forest Grove High School as seen on Google Street View, Feb. 19, 2016
Forest Grove High School as seen on Google Street View, Feb. 19, 2016

PORTLAND, Ore. (News-Times) — Meysha Harville, the African American teacher at Forest Grove High School whose experience of racial harassment helped spark a high-profile student protest against discrimination last month, has voluntarily resigned from her job and settled disputed claims of discrimination with the Forest Grove School District.

“She left on her own. She wasn’t forced out,” said Harville’s attorney, Diane Sykes.

The incident that first sparked an uproar occurred March 8 while students were passing between classes in the hall. One of them stuck his head into Harville’s classroom and said “There’s the nigger.” (Harville has requested the News-Times use the full epithet.)

But that wasn’t the first time Harville had been called “nigger” at the school, according to a tort claim sent by Sykes to the FGSD March 16 and serving as notice of a potential lawsuit. The claim lists three other incidents of racial discrimination beginning as far back as August 2015, when she was hired.

The claim states that:

“In August 2015, during a teacher training week, a teacher asked Ms. Harville about her discipline strategies and teaching style, suggesting that if she had any trouble with disciplining students, Ms. Harville could tell students that she was ‘from the hood’ and ‘scare them with my gangster stories.’ As one of two African American staff members at Forest Grove High School, Ms. Harville felt that these comments were directed at her due to her race and racial stereotyping,” the claim states.

Later that week, Harville shared that experience at an all-staff equity training session after trainers asked teachers to give examples of micro-aggression. FGHS principals and management heard the story but none followed up with her afterward about the incident, the claim states.

Further, “In September 2015, during the initial months of teaching, one of Ms. Harville’s students inquired as to whether the student could address her by saying ‘What’s up, my nigger?’ Ms. Harville responded that it would not be acceptable. She shared this event with her 9th grade and 11th grade teaching colleagues but there was no further follow-up,” the claim states.

In October, the claim continues, “Ms. Harville reported racial harassment to Principals Karen O’Neill and Tammi Erion after a Caucasian 9th grade student inquired about Ms. Harville’s ‘accent’ in front of other students. After Ms. Harville responded that she was from Ohio and sounded like the student, the student responded, in an inappropriate manner, while fellow students observed and laughed, ‘No, what part of Africa are you from?’…While Principals O’Neill and Erion stated that they would speak to the student and request that the student provide Ms. Harville with an apology, no further action was taken by the administration nor human resources to address the reporting of racial harassment.”

After the second ‘nigger’ incident March 8, Harville met with FGSD Human Resources Director Kevin Noreen and Oregon Education Association representatives on March 9 to report that these ongoing events of racial discrimination and harassment by students and faculty caused “continuing concerns about her personal safety,” the claim states.

Harville had suffered “non-economic damages in the form of emotional distress, anxiety, humiliation, fear for her personal safety, loss of esteem and impairment of reputation,” it states.

With Harville reserving the right to assert legal claims of “race discrimination in employment…race discrimination in place of public accommodation…deprivation of civil rights…intimidation (race based)…and breach of contract,” according to the tort claim, the school district accepted Harville’s resignation and allowed her to leave the school on paid-leave status beginning Monday, May 23, four days after the student walkout.

Her salary and benefits will continue through June 30, when her contract ends.

The FGSD also agreed to pay Harville $35,000 as part of the settlement agreement. In addition, district administrators will participate in a three-hour or longer training by the state Bureau of Labor and Industries on employment discrimination within six months of the agreement’s execution.

Constrained by a “nondisparagement” clause in the agreement, both sides were tight-lipped about the settlement, which “does not constitute an admission by the District of any violation of any law or statute,” according to one element of the agreement. Nor should the $35,000 payment “be deemed or construed for any purposes as evidence or an admission of liability or wrongful conduct of any kind,” it states.

But the FGSD released an official response, saying it remains “committed to equity and to creating a place where students and staff feel welcome, valued and respected. We will not be releasing any additional statements on this matter, and any specific questions should be directed to our legal counsel.”

Sykes said Harville leaves her job “with only favorable feelings about her students. She was very touched by the outpouring of support of her students.”

The March 8 incident sparked a supportive banner for Harville signed by many students and an online petition by FGHS freshman Max Kimberly calling for stronger consequences for the student who called Harville “nigger” and calling for a campaign against racism in Forest Grove.

Kimberly’s father, Ryan Kimberly, created a Twitter handle, #standupfg, to post the petition, which circulated widely on social media around that time.

The incident also led to a stronger focus on discrimination during the school’s annual “Diversity Week” a month later, which was followed by class discussions and an all-staff training on discrimination.

To prepare for that training, students were asked to write down incidents of discrimination they’d either experienced or witnessed. Before their accounts were passed along to the staff trainers, a few students saw some of the writeups and were shocked at the incidents of racial, sexual and religious discrimination reported by their classmates. They met with the FGHS principals and with the district school board to express their concern about racism and the need to address it.

Tensions were already growing at the school — where roughly half the students are Latino — due to the presidential campaign of Republican Donald Trump, who has vowed to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep immigrants from crossing into the U.S. illegally.

A group of students was suspended from chanting “Build a wall!” in the hallway. Then on Wednesday, May 18, two students hung a “Build a wall” banner above the cafeteria. Although it was torn down within minutes, the incident sparked the revival of the #standupfg Twitter account to help publicize and report on a walkout Thursday, May 19, by more than 600 students (nearly a third of the student body) and a peaceful march to the district’s administration building, where Superintendent Yvonne Curtis addressed the crowd.

The Forest Grove News-Times is a KOIN media partner. 

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