NORTH BEND — The North Bend School District is facing serious discrimination allegations.
The allegations include an LGBTQ student being forced to read Bible passages as a form of punishment and whether or not LGBTQ students were discriminated against after reporting sexual harassment. These allegations are detailed in a March 6 letter from the Oregon Department of Education to District Superintendent Bill Yester.
“In conclusion, the department finds that discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation may have occurred,” wrote Mark Mayer in the letter, complaint and appeals coordinator for ODE.
The district was encouraged to reach an agreement with one of the students within 30 days of receiving the letter.
An agreement was not met. These allegations will now be discussed before a hearing on May 24 in North Bend with the an ODE hearings officer to decide if the North Bend School District was in compliance with both state and federal anti-discrimination laws.
The World has confirmed that the American Civil Liberties Union is also involved with this case.
In a written statement to The World, the North Bend School District said that these alleged events occurred over the course of several years, “most of which had not been brought to the district’s attention.”
“The district participated in the ODE investigation process, resulting in preliminary finding that … discrimination may have occurred,” the statement said.
When the district attended the nine-hour mediation in Salem on April 25, neither party was able to reach an agreement.
“The district disputes many of ODE’s preliminary findings and will present evidence to rebut the findings at at the May 24, 2018, hearing,” the statement said. “The district works very hard every day to make sure all students feel respected and safe at school and will continue these efforts regardless of the outcome of this hearing.”
These are the allegations:
Using the Bible as punishment
A: District allegedly treating students differently on the basis of sex and sexual orientation when imposing discipline.
The letter from ODE detailed one high school student, referred to as Student 1, who said they were hesitant to report discrimination because of the religious beliefs of certain district staff members.
As proof, Student 1 pointed to another student’s experience. That minor is being referred to as Student 3, whose allegation was that the building administrator required them to read a passage from the Bible as a form of discipline.
Even though the district denies this allegation in a letter sent on Aug. 23, while the investigation was ongoing, ODE stated in the March 6 letter that the building administrator contradicted that claim. In fact, he acknowledged in an interview with ODE that he required students to read the Bible for punishment. Not only that, but the building administrator’s supervisor confirmed this.
ODE found that Student 3 was in fact assigned to read passages from the Bible while under the supervision of district staff. At least on one occasion the student was supervised by the school resource officer while being “disciplined.”
“Student 3 had little choice but to comply with the building administrator’s established form of punishment,” the letter read.
Also according to the letter’s findings, Student 1 and 3 believe the Bible was used as punishment due to Student 3’s sexual identity.
“There is substantial evidence to support the allegation that the district subjected LGBTQ students to separate or different rules of behavior, sanctions, or other treatment...,” the letter read.
There was also substantial evidence that using the Bible as punishment had a “chilling effect on LGBTQ students’ use of the district’s complaint process.”
ODE acknowledged that these allegations not only invoke federal and state anti-discrimination laws, but the First Amendment prohibiting the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” also known as the Establishment Clause. ODE pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted this clause as erecting “a wall of separation between church and state.”
Because of this, the allegation must be scrutinized under the clause “even if the stated intent of a religious activity is the ‘promotion of moral values,’” the letter read.
In response to this, the district told The World that the problem was dealt with internally. Because it is considered a personnel issue, how it was dealt with is not public knowledge, but the district stated that, “it took corrective action to ensure that it won't happen again.”
Failure to respond to sexual harassment
B: District’s alleged failure to respond to complaints alleging sexual harassment when those complaints were made by LGBTQ students.
According to the letter, Student 1 and 2 were holding hands in the school parking lot, when Student 4 “drove very close to them” and yelled “faggot.”
Student 4 is the building administrator’s child, according to the letter. Student 2 told ODE that the district did not investigate the report but instead directed the building supervisor to “discuss the matter” with Student 4 as a parent.
The district administration and human resources officer explained to ODE that Student 2 did not want to pursue the complaint.
However, Student 2 was also worried that Student 4 would be disciplined and “excluded from participating in athletics,” which “Student 2 believed would cause other students to retaliate against Student 2.”
On a separate occasion, Student 2 also reported that a teacher in class equated same-sex marriage to marrying a dog.
“The district administrator, human resource officer, and building supervisor all discussed the incident in the class with the classroom teacher,” the letter read. “Ultimately, the classroom teacher apologized to Student 2.”
However, the letter underlined that the point of the appeal was not to decide if the district’s actions were an appropriate response for Student 2’s complaint, but rather if the district discriminated against Student 1.
Failure to take action
C: District’s alleged failure to take appropriate action to remedy a hostile environment after complaints had been made by LGBTQ students alleging that students and district staff had sexually harassed other students.
“It is important to note that the district only had the opportunity to address two of the allegations made by Student 1 on appeal,” the letter read. “(1) the incident in the school parking lot… (2) the incident in the class where same-sex marriage was the topic of discussion.”
During the appeals investigation, ODE documented the district as it retaliated against a counselor who was advocating for these students.
“The department notes that the conduct of certain members of district staff during the investigation damage the credibility of the district with respect to this appeal,” the letter read. “The department finds it disconcerting that the district administrator called the counselor’s supervisor and asked about the counselor’s role in this investigation. During an interview with the department, the counselor’s supervisor objected to this call on grounds that it raised the issue of retaliation.”
While ODE interviewed the supervising administrator, he admitted that he had a preference for “loyalty” in regards to the counselor and “asserted a belief” that the counselor shouldn’t have contacted ODE before talking with the district, if at all.
In an interview with The World, this counselor – who will remain anonymous – said he moved to the Bay Area to be a counselor in the district. While advocating for these LGBTQ students, he was relocated to a new building and alleged that he had all of his resources removed at the high school, as in he had to take time to find a new room to work from. He was later removed completely once the investigation ended.
“These students have required quite a bit of support, but luckily they have some good family and friends,” he said. “A lot of students who have been involved didn’t come forward or remained anonymous so it’s two main students who spearheaded the appeal.
“They had the courage to do this.”
Because ODE saw what happened to this counselor as retaliation, it will be remembered.
“Even though the district’s treatment of the counselor is not the subject of this appeal, the department will consider it, where appropriate, when waging the relative veracity of claims made about the occurrence of discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation in the district,” the letter read.
The counselor told The World that the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry is opening an investigation on what happened to him and he is requesting a letter of apology at the hearing on May 24.
“I’m taking it one step at a time and filing papers to protect myself,” he said. “There was slander along the way and I want to make sure it doesn’t damage my career going forward.”
The World is following this story as it progresses and will update as the facts unfold.