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An Auburn Academy Firing Exacerbates Equity and Diversity Questions

“The worst case scenario just happened. I just got fired. And my mother-in-law was here, and like, my kids were here in the house, and it was just like, what just happened?” That remains the persistent question for Auburn Adventist Academy’s former athletic director, Steve Martin, who was handed a non-renewal of contract letter the day after graduation celebrations last summer. “I was just at graduation the day before. I wasn’t thinking about taking pictures with all my students and saying goodbye to everybody.”

The dismissal of a widely admired athletic director who has worked for the denomination for more than 15 years could at best be called a lay-off, and at worst a firing. Either way, it appears motivated by Martin’s concern for social issues and his efforts to recognize and correct racial injustice within his sphere of influence. Over the past several years, Martin, who is white, has spoken up in situations where he felt prejudice could be redressed. He has, for example, tackled concerns surrounding the meaning of the national anthem at sporting events and uneven applications of COVID-19 protocols for student athletes. He has also vocally supported the Black Lives Matter movement, which may have led to his termination.

When Martin was handed the letter by the conference education director in the presence of  Auburn Principal Peter Fackenthall, he was told  that the school had decided to move in a different direction. For Martin, as well as his coworkers, the decision came out of the blue. In an interview, Jesse Plecker, one of Martin’s basketball coaches clearly doesn’t agree with all of Martin’s social views, but couldn’t hold back his praise for his colleague.

“He is the most organized, self-driven guy, a guy that’s just going to lay out everything for his program, very professional. He handled everything immediately, his communication skills are off the hook.” Plecker says that he sometimes ribbed Martin, joking with him that he should be running the whole school. Having worked with, and even trained, several past athletic directors since he began at the school in 2009, Plecker is well-positioned to know what it takes to succeed in the role. “When you are in the midst of all of that, you see it day in and day out, and how much it takes to run a really good program like he did. It took a lot of work.” Plecker adds: “He just was so awesome to work with.”

A Bungled Process

Before Martin received the non-renewal letter, he had already been offered a contract renewal for the upcoming academic year by the Washington Conference. But as he was deemed a Level 1 employee, his contract could be terminated at any time. It later became clear that the decision had been made in haste and with little oversight. After initially demanding in the letter that Martin clear out his personal belongings and return his keys by 5:00 p.m. that day, the conference sent him a corrected letter later that afternoon, clarifying that his contract was still in effect for several more days and allowing him the rest of the week to vacate his office.

Later, it also became clear that Martin’s employment classification was in dispute. The academy had not updated his status in accordance with his years of service, a process that should have happened automatically. The Education Code of the North Pacific Union states that a Level 1 employee must receive at least two evaluations per year (one each semester) and have those evaluations reviewed by the conference Office of Education. In the four years Martin worked at Auburn, he did not receive any evaluations. Evaluations are part of the process for moving from Level 1 to Level 2, at which point an employee is allowed to appeal a personnel decision and address the school board, both of which Martin was denied. The code also states that a non-renewal of contract must be delivered to the employee by May 1. 

When Martin contacted the director of human resources, who also happened to be Martin’s head volleyball coach, he had to send him a copy of his own termination letter, as the director had not been made aware of the decision or seen the letter. Furthermore, the goodbye message Martin sent to the school community was the first the school board had heard of the decision. The non-renewal of contract letter read that the “Washington Conference Board of Education Executive Committee” made up of the education director, conference president, and school principal had voted to not renew his contract on Sunday, June 5, the day before he was handed the letter.

When asked by Spectrum whether Martin’s non-renewal of contract had adhered to school policy, Fackenthall claimed that with the exception of the adjusted date for the end of his contract, “due process was followed completely.”

Diversity Concerns

The board would later vote to uphold the decision, although they refused to consider certain evidence, including a letter of support for Martin from the Washington Conference Office of Regional Ministry. But the initial sudden and confusing circumstances left him feeling targeted, with concern not just for himself but for his family as well. His wife, Krystalynn Martin, is the academy’s vice president for spiritual life. She has notably played a role in convening the school’s Equity, Diversity, & Accountability (EDA) Coalition, which has worked toward an action plan for addressing questions of racial justice.

The EDA group is comprised of 12 professionals of varied backgrounds, including members of the community, parents of students past and present, staff members, and current students.. Systematically, the coalition reviewed current concerns as well as grievances dating back several years expressed through social media, phone conversations, surveys, and town hall meetings. This work has been highlighted on the North American Division’s Office of Education website, where the EDA’s 2020 report (updated in 2022) is available. According to interviews with those involved, the principal regularly skipped meetings and showed little understanding of the issues.  

In a response to Spectrum’s request for comment, the Washington Conference stated, “We can confirm Steve Martin’s contract was not renewed for the 2022-23 school year and was unrelated to any of Mr. Martin’s involvement in Auburn Adventist Academy’s Equity, Diversity & Accountability (EDA) Coalition. While the EDA Coalition did not play into the decision to not renew Mr. Martin’s contract, Washington Conference supports Auburn Adventist Academy’s continued commitment to creating an environment where equity, diversity and accountability are valued as they train their student body to be good citizens of this world. This is a journey of progress, not perfection, and we affirm the academy’s work.”

Auburn Adventist Academy, which was founded in 1919, is located in the shadow of Mount Rainier. The school sits on the Muckleshoot Prairie, a plateau named for the area’s Native American tribe, many members of which reside on the nearby Muckleshoot Reservation. The proximity makes the Muckleshoot Tribal School one of Auburn’s main basketball rivals. While the Muckleshoot players would always stand for the national anthem when visiting Auburn, Martin noticed that the tribal school’s fans and family members rarely, if ever, stood for the national anthem. The one time Martin read a land acknowledgment statement showing respect for the Indigenous peoples’ land the academy sits on, a Muckleshoot parent thanked him after the game.

With broader national discussions around kneeling for the national anthem as an act of protest against racial injustice, and with the school’s renewed commitment to betterment via its own EDA Coalition, Martin thought it would be best to address the tensions by reading a statement before the national anthem. National anthem issues had already been raised by several of his basketball coaches, who questioned Martin in a meeting as to why the anthem had not been played at the previous season’s games. Martin denied any concerted effort to avoid it, as it had been during the 2020 season shortened due to COVID, in which he felt constrained by restrictions on indoor singing. Not wanting to avoid the issue, however, Martin interviewed members of the community and used his findings to craft a statement that he took to the school’s administration. In effect, it stated that the anthem is played to honor the country, particularly those who have fought to defend it, but people should stand only if they feel comfortable doing so. Despite Martin’s efforts to discuss the issue with administration, the statement’s approval languished in bureaucracy, requiring board approval that lagged behind the school’s next basketball season. With little in the way of communication, no decision from the board, and the season already underway, the basketball coaches who had questioned Martin about the anthem resigned in protest, criticizing both him and the school for their lack of patriotism.

Martin claims that it’s an unwritten, nationwide norm at the secondary level that the national anthem is played for indoor sporting events but not outside events, where the technology to do so may not always be readily available. When Martin asked for clarification, Fackenthall said that the school should be committed to playing the anthem at outdoor events as well, if at all possible. Martin was then repeatedly questioned about his own personal feeling toward the school’s commitment to the anthem, to which he only responded that he would follow the school’s lead on policy.

Finally, Martin’s prepared statement was voted on and approved by the academy administration, faculty, and staff. When it eventually did come to the board, it was precipitated by what he describes as a “very contentious meeting.” The statement was roundly rejected, with one board member adamantly leading the opposition before it was even read. “You come to my country, you’re going to sing my anthem,” Martin remembers one board member saying. Martin was further reprimanded for having read the statement at a game before the board meeting, as he had been forbidden from doing so. Martin reports that he felt stuck between a rock and a hard place with the resignation of his coaches and the season well underway. As a result, the administration felt that he had worked alone, without enough communication with others throughout the process. Furthermore, Fackenthall stated that the school was committed to playing the anthem, which had not previously been school policy. 

Martin had gone into the board meeting knowing that the policy discussion about the anthem and the statement could be contentious. But he did not know that his athletic policy handbook would also be under review at the outset of the meeting, which he discovered only 15 minutes before it began—a move he felt intended to undermine him from the start. 

COVID Inconsistency

In another incident, Martin perceived what he felt to be an asymmetrical application of the school’s COVID protocols, which state that when one student tests positive, all other students living in the same household must also isolate. On a basketball tournament trip, this policy was strictly adhered to in the case of two brothers, who were Black, but was overlooked in the case of other students. When one brother had started feeling ill and had tested positive for COVID, Fackenthall himself found the other brother in the stands and pulled him out to be sent home just before the championship game was about to start. During the busy weekend schedule, Martin had taken note of this incident but was too preoccupied to consider the other cases. But as the tournament weekend wound down, he realized that in two other cases, students who had tested positive had members of their households on the trip who had not been asked to isolate as the policy required.

Martin says that the principal was the one who made him aware of this new policy as the student was pulled out of the stands. Martin states that he disagreed with this singling out of a student due to the housing situation they had been in throughout the tournament weekend. All the students had been hanging out and sleeping in the school gym for three days, which made the household policy difficult to navigate. In the end, the two brothers were made to isolate together, although only one tested positive and was symptomatic. The brother pulled from the tournament later tested positive.

There were about five examples of other students with household members who tested positive but who were not isolated to the same degree. All of them were not Black. Martin felt that the situation with the two brothers could potentially be construed as racial discrimination and requested in writing that the administration clarify the weekend’s events for the sake of the families of the students involved.

A Powerful Call

After the murder of George Floyd that sparked nationwide unrest throughout the summer of 2020, like many others throughout the country, Martin was inspired to renew his commitment to racial justice and make a statement of solidarity. In that vein, along with the deans of the girls’ dorm, Martin helped organize a school run to commemorate Juneteenth, for which he also made t-shirts sporting the school logo with the words “Freedom Run.” Participating as well, on his own shirt he added #BlackLivesMatter, #FreedomRide, and #SayTheirNames, along with the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. A photo of his shirt was posted on the girls’ dormitory Facebook page. But administration immediately instructed the girls’ dorm to take the photo down.

A week later, Martin received a phone call on his personal cell phone from the wife of the school board member who would go on to lead the opposition to his anthem statement. She “lit into me about wearing the shirt,” Martin remembers, saying things like, “How dare you wear that shirt without board approval? You don’t have permission to do that. You’re disparaging the school.” Given the connection, it seems clear that Martin’s work with racial justice had already made him a target of at least one board member.

According to multiple interviews with Auburn parents and staff, the school’s treatment of Martin is connected to deeper management and board issues. Many describe a tense workplace environment. Martin says last school year was “one of the most tension-based years,”and it felt like “everybody [was] one miscommunication away from blowing up.”

Echoes at Auburn

At worst, the response to Martin’s efforts may betray a broader culture of racism at the school. Several former students of color and their parents describe an extensive list of incidents. In several situations, Black students have felt like they received more severe punishments than white students for similar school infractions. One student recalled feeling like they “always just had a target” on their back at the school. This feeling seems to have extended to family members as well. During one disciplinary instance, a student remembers Black parents being lectured and chastised about their children’s poor behavior in a meeting with administrators, while a white friend involved in the same incident later revealed that their family had been comforted and reassured. In another instance, a Black student wrongly implicated in on-campus misbehavior was punished despite the student’s mother insisting that the student was at home at the time. Parents recount this attitude of distrust and suspicion permeating even mundane administrative tasks, like signing students out of the dorm and paying tuition bills.

 In interviews and on social media, former Auburn students of color report a litany of racist jokes from fellow students involving ugly stereotyping, which on occasion have included racial slurs. A number of students note that nothing was done, even on occasions when teachers either overheard these things or were made aware of them. In the very worst instances, part-time teachers joined in. When some students were discussing issues of race in America, a student recalls a teacher saying, “If you don’t like it, go back to your own country.” One former student, who is now pursuing a master’s degree, remembers another teacher who appeared to address students of color while making various comments to the effect of, “You won’t amount to anything. If you go to college, you’ll fail. You’re not going to be anything.”

Experiences like these have informed and motivated Auburn’s Equity, Diversity, & Accountability Coalition, which aims “to ensure that our campus is a[n] environment where everyone is treated fairly, free of racism, injustice, inequality and prejudice.” After the murder of George Floyd, the school made a statement of solidarity and support for students of color and the Black community. Auburn requested that Gesele Thomas, a parent at the school, chair the coalition and put together a plan of action together with Steve Martin’s wife, Krystalynn. The two women, along with diverse members of the community, put together a 100-page document of suggestions that includes diversity training for faculty and staff, changes to the curriculum, adjustments to hiring practices, and a more robust policy for processing grievance reports.

Progress is slow, especially from the perspective of students whose time at Auburn is limited. But it’s progress nonetheless. Two years after their initial report, the EDA Coalition succeeded in appointing an interim ombudsperson, Dr. Columbus Candies, to assist in resolving conflicts and disputes. The EDA Coalition’s work has been so impressive that the North American Division reached out to highlight their work. When asked what he regards as the most successful or most important policy recommendations of the EDA Coalition, Principal Peter Fackenthall only quoted Micah 6:8.

How Much Time for Your Progress?

Putting faith into action still remains a goal. Some have described the administration’s halting support and communication as “disappointing.” For them, Martin’s dismissal could be seen as a step backward. Fackenthall regards the situation as “a private, personal matter,” one perhaps related more to the perennial shoestring budgets of Adventist schools everywhere than to issues of racism. Like many secondary schools in Adventism, Auburn boasts an impressively diverse student body, and one of the more diverse faculties among schools in rural Washington, which Fackenthall points to as an important reminder of their commitment to minority groups.

Jesse Plecker, Martin’s close associate at Auburn, recognizes that Martin was “trying to make change in a world that is just so divided in this country.” But he attributes Martin’s dismissal to systemic issues within the administration. In his opinion, a lack of organization means that administration is “reacting instead of being proactive.” ”You’re waiting for a shoe to drop if you’re working for this organization,” he says.

While it’s unclear who exactly made the decision to let Martin go, several people interviewed for this story criticized Fackenthall for his lack of communication around this and other issues within the school. One community member described him as more of a “cheerleader” than a leader, someone who bolsters all that’s positive about Auburn while ignoring all the negative that needs resolving.

Others have pointed more to the board as the source of the institution’s issues, painting a picture of Auburn as a school run by a small handful of wealthy, white families who are defined by their opposition to anti-racism efforts. One of the EDA Coalition’s recommendations is that at least 30 percent of the school’s board be persons of color, a percentage reflective of the student body they claim to serve.

If nothing else, Martin’s situation has at least served to highlight long-standing divisions within a school trying to  address racial injustice. Sadly, Auburn may not be at all unique in the issues of racism it must deal with. That Auburn continues to struggle despite the work of the EDA Coalition raises more general questions about the Adventist educational system, its treatment of employees, and its systemic division between conferences and regional ministries.

As for Martin himself, he continues to speak out. With the help of legal counsel, he rejected a non-disclosure agreement, which are now illegal in the State of Washington for employee contracts. Mostly he worries about his family. “This came all very suddenly for us and without explanation,” he says. “I felt like this was in some way related to the work that I do with racial justice.” Kystalynn Martin, who was part of the EDA coalition continues as the academy’s vice president for spiritual life. Looking back Steve reflects on what happened: “I figured this is either retaliation against my wife or direct retaliation against me.

Whatever the real motive behind Steve Martin’s dismissal, this has set back the work of those concerned with how to apply Micah 6:8 on campus today. Six Black community members at Auburn spoke to Spectrum expressing a desire to see how Martin’s treatment and the underlying issues will be resolved. As one comment in the EDA’s report states, Auburn has “been in the process…to change for about 12 years that I know of. You always told me that it’s going to take time. It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time, my nieces and my nephew’s time. How much time do you want for your progress?”

Jeremy Gray is adjunct faculty at Andrews University and a correspondent for Spectrum.

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