LGBT students’ heartbreaking treatment at an Oregon high school

by Mat dos Santos, Legal Director, ACLU of Oregon
Kelly Simon, Staff Attorney, ACLU of Oregon

Last month, a professor at Willamette University College of Law reached out for our help on an open case with her student-run legal clinic. It was, Professor Warren Binford said, one of the worst discrimination cases at a school she’s ever seen in Oregon. In our job, we hear a lot of awful and heartbreaking cases, but the cruel treatment of LGBTQ students at North Bend High School shocked us.

LGBTQ students at the rural school have been harassed, threatened, bullied, and assaulted for being who they are. When these students turned to the adults in charge, the administrators, teachers, and staff ignored their pleas for help. Instead, they told one of our clients she was going to hell for being gay, subjected LGBTQ students to harsher discipline than their straight peers, and equated homosexuality with bestiality. We also learned that both LGBTQ and straight students faced a punishment of reciting Bible passages.

It is wrong on so many levels. The law protects explicitly young LGBTQ people in school from bullying and harsher punishment than their straight peers. Public schools may not force students to read the Bible for punishment or any other reason. That the school needed the Oregon Department of Education to step in to stop such clear violations is astounding.

Two brave young women, Liv and Hailey, have been fighting to change their school. With the help of a school counselor and Willamette Law’s legal clinic, they took their case to the state DOE. The agency conducted a months-long investigation and found substantial evidence of discrimination and other violations of state and federal law.

Leaked details of the cases made it to the local paper, and the school district has downplayed what happened. We’ve heard from some other current and former students, teachers, and district staff who witnessed or subjected mistreatment at North Bend High School. Most are still too afraid of the current administration to come forward with their complaints.

Liv and Hailey have asked for serious changes at the school. If not enforced, policy on paper isn’t enough for them. They want to make sure that other students won’t have to face discrimination at school again. The school refused to make the changes, so, with our help, Liv and Hailey are continuing to pursue their case.

Next week, there will be a hearing in their case, and we will represent them. They’ll ask the DOE to affirm the substantial evidence of discrimination and demand the school administrators accountability.

It is clear that the school is not doing its job of protecting and treating all students fairly. Every kid deserves to have a safe and welcoming school, no matter their sexual orientation, gender identity, race or ethnicity, disability, or religious beliefs. Whether you live in a big city or a small town, the law and the Constitution protect the right to an education free from discrimination.

PHOTO | Liv and Hailey, North Bend High School students

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