Anti-abortion demonstration near AHS sparks impromptu lesson in free speech, traffic jam

Ashland High School interim Principal Erika Bare was in her office interviewing a candidate for a secretary position last Friday when the commotion ignited by a pro-life demonstration outside her window crossed the line from merely distracting to disruptive. That was the end of the interviews she had planned and the start of her short-lived career as a crowd-control specialist. 
That’s only part of the reason why Bare is hopeful that the next time the Abolitionist Society of Roseburg, a Christian group associated with Project Frontlines, decides to set up camp near the AHS campus it first contacts the school and communicates its intentions. But Bare also concedes that if the group, whose signs featured large pictures of aborted fetuses, decides to drop by again without warning, there’s probably nothing she or anybody else, including the Ashland Police Department, can do about it. 
“The school can’t interfere in group free speech and we would not try to do that,” Bare said Thursday, six days after the Abolitionist Society of Roseburg’s demonstration. “(Reactions) widely varied, and so I don’t want to put out any sort of general reaction, just because students were really, depending on their stance on that particular issue, were impacted differently. But many (students) were upset by their method. 
“I want to be really clear that their choice to do this outside a school and kind of disrupt our learning environment was a frustration for us, but we understand their right to do that and we certainly understand that we can’t interfere in that. But it is frustrating for us that we had four administrators who instead of focusing on teaching and learning were instead (focused on) the safety of students.”
According to Bare, the demonstrators arrived in the morning, setting up shop on the corner of Mountain Avenue and Iowa Street across from the AHS bus ramp. The group — there were about 10 to 15 of them, Bare estimated, with an even split of adults and children who appeared to be preteens — handed out pamphlets in the morning and brought out signs in the afternoon. The latter demonstration began a little after 2 p.m. and coincided with the release of students. 
Traffic is always heavy that time of day, Bare said, but as the demonstration began to attract attention from both students and rubbernecking drivers, Bare realized that it had become a safety concern. Soon, Bare, assistant principal Jay Preskenis, Athletic Director/Assistant Principal Karl Kemper and Dean of Students Russ Johnson were on the scene, attempting to bring civility to a sidewalk debate which had, by all accounts, quickly escalated into a tense back-and-forth verbal sparring match. Bare also called the Ashland Police Department. 
Johnson directed traffic until the police arrived and took over, but the demonstration continued. A three-and-a-half minute YouTube video of the incident, produced by an account titled “JesusLoveMinistries” was posted on Oct. 10. In it, several Ashland High students argue with demonstrators over abortion while others mill about in the crowd. In the background, Johnson can be seen waving cars down Mountain Avenue, whose east-to-west lane was stacked bumper-to-bumper past Mountain Avenue Gym. 
At one point, a teenage girl tells the demonstrator holding the camera, “My body is my body.” The demonstrator responds by saying, “That baby is not your body and no baby in you is your body. That’s simple seventh-grade science. You guys are all past seventh grade here.” 
While he spoke, the camera panned to the picture he was holding, a graphic, bloody fetus, presumably the result of an abortion. 
“That’s the 20-week old baby of an actual abortion,” he tells another girl later. “You can deny it all you want, you can go research it. If you’re willing to be bold, if you’re willing to go look, you can go onto YouTube and watch an abortion taking place. Go look at it.” 
At the start of the video, a logo reads “Community Outreach Evangelism,” a program which, through its Facebook page, announced another demonstration planned for Saturday near Raider Stadium prior to the football game between Southern Oregon University and Carroll College. 
Bare said the reaction on campus following the morning demonstration was muted as students “processed” what they saw, which included pamphlets that stated, in bold all-capital letters, that “Planned Parenthood is happy to report that 26 percent of teen pregnancies end in abortion. …This means that every year hundreds of thousands of teenagers in the United States are becoming murderers by the time they leave their parents’ home.” 
The scene became tense in the afternoon, however, forcing the AHS staff to take on crowd control duties. It was also, Bare added, a teaching moment, albeit somewhat chaotic in nature. 
“We were engaging with the students,” she said, “trying to talk to them about how to engage in a productive debate, and also letting them know that the folks had a right to be there but (the students) were under no obligation to listen or engage — they could turn around and walk away.” 
Some did and some didn’t, but Bare hopes that most of the students at least came away with a better understanding of their rights. 
“As a school it is our job to educate our students on what is free speech, what is the right to protest, what is your responsibility as a citizen — to engage in a productive way or not,” she said. “And also, what your rights are just as a person. You get to make personal choices about that.” 
The Ashland Police Department posted a message about the incident on its Facebook page the following day, explaining that unless the demonstrators were on school property or blocking the sidewalk they could not be charged with municipal code or state statute criminal violations.
“Beyond that,” the post read, “they, like everyone else, have a lot of latitude about what free speech they choose to exercise. I agree that some of this is in poor taste, but there is not much the police department can do.” 
Bare echoed that sentiment while also making a plea to the Abolitionist Society of Roseburg and other groups. In the interest of safety, she asks, please phone ahead. Beyond that, the school’s strategy for dealing with the next demonstration won’t change much. 
“I don’t know that there’s anything we could have done differently,” she said. “When groups decide to hand out literature or do demonstrations near campus, it’s really helpful to us if we can know in advance. Because we’re not going stop them from doing that, but I do know that groups are not interested in anything bad happening to students so they have to understand that student safety is our primary concern. And if we know in advance that something like this is happening we can plan for safety measures to be in place.” 
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.

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