The Oregon coast is one of the tourism wonders of our country with its misty capes, baying sea lions, dusky brown sand, pods of grey whales and majestic basalt rock formations a few dozen feet into the surf. About midway down its Pacific coastline is the town of Coos Bay, not far from the North Bend School District.
Who knew that this quiet, rural place hid a dark secret? On Wednesday, the New York Times ran a story that had been percolating for more than a week but which had surprisingly gotten no coverage from media in Portland.
It involves a public school, a lawsuit, the Bible and LGBTQ students.
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.
Let's pause for a moment.
Having lived and reported out of Oregon -- for more than eight years at one point -- I know that this state is one of the most irreligious states in America. Gallup polls bear me out. So, there’s this “deeply religious culture” lurking just southwest of the ultra-liberal college town of Eugene?
Near the end of the article, the reporter has a quote from a Lutheran clergyman who supports the gay students.
“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 (Israel) Jurich said he had 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.
So, the only religious culture I see in this piece is represented by clergy supportive of the students. (Note to the Times copy desk here: the correct Associated Press style for any clergy person is “the Rev.”, not “pastor.”)
So I turned to the local paper, the Coos Bay World, which broke the story on May 8. Reporter Jillian Ward took charge of this narrative with a lengthy piece. It says in part:
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 newspaper then quotes directly from the complaint.
The letter from ODE (Oregon Department of Education) 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. ...
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.”
When did this occur? The complaint doesn’t say.
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.”
I am curious what Bible passage or passages the student had to read and if they had anything to do with homosexuality. That’s an important point. There’s a big difference between telling a student to read passages condemning same-sex relations in Leviticus or Romans, versus forcing them to read a few psalms (although that would still be very unusual).
Other allegations in the report concerned sexual harassment and the removal of a counselor sympathetic to gay students.
I’m not defending what happened in this district but I also don’t see where the New York Times gets the idea that a sinister “deeply religious culture” is in back of all this. There needs to be some kind of material reporting on that alleged culture and who supports it.
The reporter followed up with a piece about how the Oregon branch of the American Civil Liberties Union has jumped on the case and mentions that at least one other student told of the Bible-reading-as-discipline practice.
Since The World first published the story detailing ODE’s investigation, more people have come forward with accounts of the same discrimination happening to them. One contacted The World, but will remain anonymous until after the May 24 hearing, who said she was forced to read the Bible in 2011. The punishment came after she missed a few classes and needed to make up the time through detention.
“Being forced into an ultimatum to either read the Bible to him (the alleged school administrator) or he wouldn’t sign off on my time made up to graduate high school is an abuse of power,” she said. “When I was young, I thought that he was just doing that to me because he is a family friend that I have known since I was in diapers, but now that I’m learning he does this to other children I want to see him get what he deserves.
So now we have a pattern of behavior rather than an isolated incident. The World has followed up with other articles here and here. Gay advocacy publications have also run with it but as of Thursday evening, I saw nothing in the Portland, Salem or Eugene media. Odd.
I still take issue with the Times’ contention that there’s this monster culture on the Oregon coast of avid Bible thumpers wanting to thwack LGBTQ kids with carefully selected verses that are sure to oppress them. We’re talking about a tiny district with one high school, which is where all the problems occurred.
There’s a May 24 hearing scheduled with a state department education officer to wade through all the allegations, so expect to hear more on this. Now that national media have gotten involved, I hope more of the regional media will step up to the plate, if for no other reason than to give a more realistic picture of what this part of Oregon is really like.