Last month, a professor at Willamette University College of Law reached out to our office for help on a case her student-run legal clinic had been working on. It was, Professor Warren Binford said, one of the worst cases of discrimination at a school that she had 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 on the Oregon coast have been harassed, threatened, bullied, and assaulted just for being who they are. What is worse is that when these students turned to the adults in charge to protect them, the school 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 students and straight students have been forced to recite Bible passages as a punishment.
This is wrong on so many levels. The law specifically protects young LGBTQ people in school from bullying and being punished more harshly than their straight peers. Public schools aren’t allowed to 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 of the law is astounding.
Two brave young women, Liv and Hailey, have been fighting to change their school. With the help of a friendly school counselor and Willamette Law’s legal clinic, they took their case to the Oregon Department of Education. The agency conducted a months-long investigation and found substantial evidence of discrimination and other violations of state and federal law.
Details of the cases were leaked to the local paper, and the school district has tried to downplay what happened. We have heard from a number of other current and former students, teachers, and other district staff who witnessed or were subjected to this kind of mistreatment at North Bend High School. Most of them 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. For them, policy on paper isn’t enough if it isn’t enforced, and they want to make sure that other students will not 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. Liv and Hailey will ask the state Education Department to affirm its finding of substantial evidence of discrimination and demand that North Bend high school administrators be held accountable.
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.
If you or anyone you know has experienced discrimination or mistreatment at a public school in Oregon, please reach out to us.