Creating a SAFE Space
The SAFE Club Is a Welcoming Group

By Jillian Daley

When several Hispanic students at North Marion High School approached School Board Vice Chair Bill Graupp about racial issues in the classroom at the start of the 2020-21 school year, he made the choice to not only listen to them, but to take action.

That’s because, for Graupp, a School District is only as strong as the students within it.

“The student voices are the most important measure of outcome,” says Graupp, also vice president and past president of the Oregon School Board Members of Color Caucus and a member of the Oregon School Boards Association.

In November 2020, Graupp and Brack established Students Advocating for Equity (SAFE), which has nine students, many of whom are involved in Associated Student Body (ASB), a student government and leadership group that organizes student events and activities.

Graupp had already brainstormed the idea of teaching students the language and concepts connected to equity, along with the history of why there are racial issues in this region, state, and country. He decided the timing was right, teaming up with Language Arts Teacher and ASB Director Ty Brack.

“For me, this program gave the participating students a broader narrative of the racial issues facing the country,” Graupp says. “It promotes critical thinking with respect to cultural diversity and personal biases. It gives students the tools to understand their own biases, as well as recognizing the biases in systems of government and communications.”

Graupp says he hopes that SAFE will afford students the opportunity to delve into racial issues and make positive changes.

“The goal is to embrace our differences as an asset to build a great future for all,” he says.

The students have been meeting every Monday afternoon in a classroom at the High School. Depending on the Risk Level and other factors, the group may meet in person or online.

“The students are amazing,” Brack says. “This is hard work, and it's brave work, and the students are paving the path to a more equitable, inclusive reality for our community. We have so much to learn from them!”

Learning About the Tuskegee Trials

At a recent class, SAFE students and their co-advisers, Graupp and Brack, discussed medical experimentation on people of color. Graupp started by describing Edward Jenner, the British doctor who discovered in the late 1700s that the more mild cowpox virus created immunity to the deadly smallpox virus.

When President Thomas Jefferson learned of it, he brought the natural vaccine to America and began testing variations of it on his slaves. Jefferson gave the vaccine variations to 200 of his extended families and neighbors, resulting in incredible scientific findings. Graupp asked the students what they thought of this unethical experimentation leading to positive results.

“After a storm, there’s a rainbow,” junior Ime Guzman says. “There was a bad thing, but something beautiful came out of it.”

Brack told the students that Jefferson’s experiments called to mind the U.S. Public Health Service Study at the Tuskegee Institute, an institution of higher learning for African Americans in Alabama that later became Tuskegee University.

Commonly called the Tuskegee Study, it involved an examination of untreated syphilis in Black men. Penicillin was available, but was not used on the men, who were told they were being treated for “bad blood.” An advisory panel in 1972 determined that the results were meager for such an unethical study.

Students’ Response to Past Atrocities Will Guide Their Treatment of Present-Day Issues

North Marion High School senior Elisa Morfin hadn’t heard of the Tuskegee Study before, and she was horrified.

“It shocks me, but it doesn’t really surprise me,” Morfin says. “It’s such a United States thing. I don’t think they should have done that. … I don’t think they (the trial participants) should have been put in that position. It should have been voluntary. It’s devastating.”

Senior Alondra Ruiz Contreras says that she had heard about some of these unethical human experiments on TikTok. This troubled history still impacts people of color today through vaccine hesitancy, she notes.

Senior Sophia Villarreal says the government’s actions, even decades or hundreds of years ago, has created a legacy of distrust, as evidenced by the vaccine hesitancy. 

Her twin sister, senior Monica Villarreal says, “A lot of history is whitewashed or changed to pretend like a lot of our problems are in the past or didn’t happen.”

Senior Julissa Ramon says she is angry at the position people of color found themselves in as a result of the country’s checkered past.

Guzman says it makes him feel sad, but he believes the best way to address the resulting vaccine hesitancy and lack of awareness of people of color’s historical experience is to educate people.

“I definitely think we need to get information out,” he says.

Graupp replies, “In today’s environment, it’s so much easier to misinform than inform.”

Sometimes, misinformation is the result of a lack of cultural responsiveness. He recounted the confusion in Africa over language in polio vaccine packaging that called the doses “sterile,” or uncontaminated, in English. In northern Nigeria in 2003, political and religious leaders sought to halt the polio vaccination campaign because of fears that the United States, out of post-9/11 fear and rage, would place antifertility agents, HIV, or other cancerous agents in the vaccine.

Morfin says that the Nigerians may have been more trusting had the packages “been printed in their language.” 

Getting students to have realizations such as these is just what Graupp was dreaming of when he created SAFE for all of these students and the other members: sophomore Yadira Romero and Grace Davenport and freshman Alejandra Zamora.

“What I want to do is give you all of the truth for greater understanding, so we don’t repeat the worst parts of history,” Graupp tells them all.

To share your story on the North Marion School District, email Communications Specialist Jillian Daley at

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