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Sept. 19, 2020

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Stoker resigns from Vancouver school board after comment on protesters

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published:

Vancouver Public Schools director Mark Stoker resigned Monday after fallout from his tweet suggesting that fire hoses be used to quell demonstrators protesting police brutality against the black community.

In a letter to Superintendent Steve Webb, Stoker wrote that his continued service on the board would be “too big a distraction from the critical work needed to overcome the challenges created by these unprecedented times.”

Protests and riots have erupted across the United States in the last week following the killing of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly nine
minutes. 

Stoker on Saturday tweeted in response to a Seattle sports commentator’s dismay over rioting in the city, saying “Two words: Fire Hoses!” Stoker’s comment evoked the memorable and horrific images of police officers using high-pressure fire hoses against black demonstrators during the civil rights marches of the 1960s.

Stoker later apologized but added that his tweet had been misinterpreted and that his intent was not to be racist. Teachers in the district and community members called on Stoker to resign over the weekend, and his fellow school board members condemned his comments.

Explanation falls flat

Stoker deleted his tweet and made his personal Twitter account private over the weekend. In a statement to The Columbian, Stoker denied there were racial undertones to his tweet, saying he meant that fire crews should extinguish the burning buildings and vehicles he’d seen in Seattle.

Some teachers in the district weren’t buying it.

“With one tweet, our district became an unsafe place for my kids, and it’s frustrating,” said Ben Jatos, an English teacher at Fort Vancouver High
School. “Then to not really apologize and feign ignorance is just as offensive.”

Bethany Rivard, another English teacher at Fort Vancouver High School, said Stoker’s apology didn’t “ring true” for her. “I can’t speak for his intent, but clearly, as an educator, seeing that tweet and not connecting it to the past is alarming,” Rivard said. “I don’t think you can serve in that capacity if we really want to tackle systemic racism in schools.”

In a statement to district employees on Monday, Webb wrote, “racism in any form is wholly inconsistent with our mission, values and beliefs.”

“As the adoptive father of a multiracial family, I know this: The feelings of pain and hurt felt by many people in our community are real,” Webb wrote. “We must endeavor together to work toward creating a more just and humane world. The children of our school district and community deserve nothing less.”

Stoker has been on the school board since 2007. He previously served on the boards for the Vancouver School District Foundation and the I Have a Dream Foundation.

A new board

Stoker’s resignation means Vancouver Public Schools has seen complete turnover in its school board since 2017, when Evergreen Public Schools teacher Wendy Smith was elected to replace outgoing board member Kathy Gillespie.

This young school board faces significant challenges around race and equity within the district. The Attorney General’s Office last year charged the school district with overhauling its disciplinary policies after finding they were discriminatory against disabled students and some students of color.

Communities of color have also been disproportionately harmed by the coronavirus pandemic, a disparity that is likely to make an impact in students’ educations.

Smith, now board president, said she is grateful for Stoker’s decision to resign, saying it allows the district to move forward.

“It was hard to see people and their responses to it, which were all authentic and justified,” she said. “I’m glad we can now move on.”

Vancouver Public Schools will accept applicants for Stoker’s position and approve a new board member to serve out the rest of his term. Stoker also encouraged the board to appoint a member who reflects the demographics of Vancouver Public Schools; about 45 percent of the district’s students identify as people of color, but all its school board members are white.

“That new director will have an opportunity to make an impact on the vision and policies of the district before his or her term expires,” Stoker wrote in his letter to Webb. “That would be a fitting end to this story.”

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