A member of the Vancouver Public Schools board of directors has apologized for a comment on social media that one fellow board member decried as racist in tone.
School board member Mark Stoker suggested that fire hoses be used against people who damage property during protests that have followed the death of George Floyd.
Floyd, a handcuffed black man who pleaded for air as a white police officer pressed a knee on his neck, died in Monday in Minneapolis. Protests, rioting and looting have followed in cities nationwide, including Portland and Seattle.
Stoker was responding to a tweet by Seattle sports radio host Dave Mahler, who was expressing disgust at property damage that occurred in downtown Seattle on Saturday.
“Two words. Fire Hoses!” Stoker wrote. The tweet has since been deleted and Stoker has made his Twitter account private.
But his comment drew an immediate rebuke from school board vice president Kathy Decker, who wrote “WHAT?” in response to Stoker’s tweet.
“I think it’s obvious by my response to the initial tweet that I was completely taken aback,” Decker said when reached by phone on Sunday.
School board president Wendy Smith published her own rebuke Sunday on Facebook.
Smith called Stoker’s comment “racist in tone.” One of the most memorable images of civil rights marches in the 1960s is fire hoses being used against black demonstrators.
“I can’t speak to another person’s intent, only to the way it was received by myself and others in our community,” Smith wrote.
Stoker, a Vancouver attorney, has served on the school board since 2007. He has previously served on the boards of the Vancouver School District Foundation and the I Have A Dream Foundation.
Stoker apologized Sunday in an email to The Columbian. He denied that his comment had any racial intent. Instead, he said he was hoping fire crews would extinguish the burning cars and buildings he had seen in downtown Seattle.
“People have interpreted my tweet to mean I was spreading some type of hate message,” Stoker wrote. “It never occurred to me that people would draw a comparison to the sixties. It should have! It was never my intent to make a racially insensitive statement, nor offend anyone, let alone spread hate. Nothing in my background, public or private, would ever suggest otherwise. Nonetheless, I understand how people see it. The response has been enlightening. I sincerely apologize for any additional hurt this has caused.”
Smith made clear that Stoker’s comments do not represent the views of the school board.
“As a private citizen, public school educator, school board director, and human being, I unequivocally condemn his remarks and the actions they encouraged,” Smith wrote. “I recognize the hurt inflicted by such words and sentiments and refuse to be associated with them, no matter how remotely. It sickened me to see his comment, and I am dumbfounded that anyone could fail to see it as anything other than racist.”
Vancouver Education Association President Kari Van Nostran also criticized Stoker in an open letter to him.
“As leaders within our school community, we are charged with the task of leaning into constructive discourse around racial and social injustices — to share the work of dismantling systems of oppression,” the teachers union president wrote. “Instead, your tweet not only ignores the history of unnecessary use of force against protesters – particularly those of color – it appears to be a call to apply that sickening practice.”
Vancouver Public Schools spokeswoman Pat Nuzzo said the school district had no comment.
“Mark was commenting as an individual on a personal account, so it would be inappropriate for the district to make any comment,” Nuzzo said.
Members of the five-member school board are elected by voters to four-year terms. Stoker’s current term lasts until 2021.
Smith indicated that she has heard from many in the community upset at Stoker’s comment. She said there is little the board can do when it comes to disciplining one of its members.
“The only authority who can make Director Stoker accountable for his words are the voters,” Smith wrote. “I encourage you to email him directly and let him know your feelings. But please also remember this in 2021: elections matter.”
Stoker vowed to learn from the experience.
“I also completely understand the root cause of the unrest and respect everyone’s right to peacefully protest,” he wrote. “Obviously, a better choice of words would have been a better response; or better yet, not engage at all in these sensitive times. I can assure you, the best interests of all of our students and families is in my heart and my work.
“I intend to learn from my mistake and I promise to do better.”