L.G.B.T. Students In Oregon Were Bullied And Forced To Read Bible, Report Says

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An investigator in the Oregon Department of Education said there was evidence of discrimination toward gay, lesbian and transgender students at North Bend High School, on the state’s southern coast.CreditJillian Ward/The World

In the hallways of a rural Oregon high school, gay and lesbian students were taunted with homophobic slurs. In the cafeteria, students pelted a transgender student with food. And when gay and lesbian students got into trouble, the school’s principal assigned a specific punishment just for them: readings from the Bible.

Students detailed those allegations in recent state investigative reports into the North Bend School District, a coastal area about 100 miles north of California. In the reports, gay and lesbian high school students described years of harassment and bigotry from school employees and other students, and a deeply religious culture that silenced their complaints.

The two reports, completed in March by an investigator in the Oregon Department of Education and made public this month, found that top officials in North Bend had for at least the past two school years fostered hostile conditions for gay and lesbian students, hesitated to intervene after reports of sexual harassment and retaliated against a school counselor who had cooperated with the state investigation.

The state found “substantial evidence” of discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students at North Bend High School. “The department finds that discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation may have occurred,” the investigator wrote.

In schools across the country, students who are gay, lesbian or transgender are more likely to be bullied and suffer depression than their straight peers, studies have found. It is no different in Oregon, gay and lesbian activists said, despite the perception of the state, and particularly places like Portland, as a progressive paradise.

In the state reports, the district denied that students had been mistreated and said that when they had reported cases of harassment, it resolved them promptly and appropriately.

School officials initially denied that students were required to read the Bible as punishment. But they later told investigators it was true, adding that they handed down the punishment not to promote a religion but “to assist students in understanding the effects of certain behaviors.”

The state ordered North Bend in March to settle with a pair of female students whose complaints to the State Department of Education led to the investigation. But no deal was reached, so the state has scheduled a hearing on May 24 with both sides to help mediate a resolution.

North Bend’s superintendent, Bill Yester, said Wednesday that the district disputes many of the state’s findings and will present its evidence at the hearing. He said the Bible was used as punishment only once.

“The district works hard every day to make sure all students feel respected and safe at school and will continue these efforts regardless of the outcome of the hearing,” Mr. Yester said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon has agreed to represent the students next week.

“It’s incredibly troubling that there is a school in Oregon that thinks it’s O.K. to discipline students using forced readings of the Bible,” Mat dos Santos, the chapter’s legal director, said in an interview. “It’s equally troubling that there are students who feel unsafe going to school because they identify as L.G.B.T.Q.”

The two female students, who had dated while attending North Bend High School, brought their stories to the state last summer.

The discrimination they described included a teacher telling them that their kissing was “disgusting,” the principal’s son yelling anti-gay slurs at one of them and a school resource officer dismissing their complaints about harassment.

The officer told them that “homosexuality is a lifestyle that someone chooses and revealed that homosexuality is against the school resource officer’s personal religious beliefs,” according to the reports.

While the North Bend School District denied many of the allegations, a school counselor and mental health professionals in Coos County told the state investigator that the stories of discrimination were similar to those they had heard from other students. The school counselor said administrators had discarded past reports of harassment.

There is “a general lack of awareness within the local culture of how personal beliefs have interfered with identifying discrimination,” they wrote in a letter to the state.

Administrators reassigned the counselor to another school after they discovered the employee had been cooperating with the investigation, the report said.

For the past three years, a group of L.G.B.T. students in North Bend have met in private once a week to discuss their experiences. Last fall, gay and lesbian activists also held a community meeting at the county museum to discuss discrimination in the area.

“Kids can be cruel, and it’s coddled,” said Alan Brown, a gay activist in the area who helped organize the community event, where one of the students spoke about her experiences at North Bend High School. “I experienced my own harassment growing up here.”

Shortly after the youth weekly meetings began, the two students who later filed the complaints started to show up and share their stories, said the Rev. Israel Jurich, a pastor at Faith Lutheran Church in North Bend who helped organize the events.

“It didn’t surprise me to hear the stories that these students shared,” Pastor Jurich said in an interview. “But the severity of it surprised me a little bit.”

Pastor Jurich said he has been helping the two students through his church. The students are not seeking monetary damages from the district, he said, but wanted North Bend officials to better train school employees and enforce its existing anti-bullying policy.

“The policy is great, but it doesn’t matter if it’s not enforced,” he said.