The stares and whispers started on the first day of school more than two years ago, when Liv Funk and Hailey Smith silently declared their relationship in the halls of North Bend High School by holding hands.
They knew coming out would be hard in the small, coastal Oregon city — but they hadn’t expected it to elicit so many frightening reactions from both classmates and adult staff members, the girls wrote about their treatment at the school in a pair of essays for the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon.
“People would turn their backs to me and fake-cough while saying [a gay slur],” wrote Funk, who was a sophomore in 2015 when the harassment started. “If I happened to sit next to a girl, they’d make a big show of moving away.”
Smith, then a junior, said she learned to not care what people thought — until it escalated to fearing for their physical safety one day as the pair was leaving campus for lunch. In the school’s back parking lot, they saw the principal’s son speeding toward them in his car, Smith wrote.
“We thought he was going to hit us. Instead, he drove right up next to us, yelled out [a slur] and veered away,” Smith wrote. “It was terrifying.”
That incident, she said, was a turning point for how she viewed the harassment.
“I realized that discrimination and people’s opinions here are really so strong that somebody could get hurt,” Smith wrote. “I could get hurt just for being myself.”
Both Funk and Smith reported the parking lot and other incidents to the principal, who they said never took action. They weren’t surprised: The principal had once made a friend read the Bible as “punishment” for being bisexual, they said.
“When I told the principal that my civics teacher called me out in front of the whole class and said same-sex marriage was ‘pretty much the same thing’ as marrying a dog, the principal told me ‘everybody has the right to their own opinion,’ ” Smith wrote. “The next day, the teacher apologized, but as I walked away, he said, ‘Don’t go marrying your dog.’ ”
From that school year to the next, the incidents piled on: There were constant offensive comments and “jokes.” Slurs, both whispered and shouted. A time when Funk said she was pinned against a bathroom wall and called another slur.
During Funk’s junior year, she was physically attacked on a cement path near the school by two boys who were yelling slurs. One whacked her ankle with his skateboard, then used it to smash her right hand when she reached out to try to protect herself. She had to go to the doctor and get X-rays, she said.
Funk reported the incident to North Bend High School’s resource officer. His response, she said, was “stunning, but not surprising in hindsight.”
“He said that if I’m going to be an open member of the LGBT community that I should prepare for things like this,” Funk wrote. “The officer said that being gay was a choice, and it was against his religion. He said that he had homosexual friends, but because I was an open homosexual, I was going to hell.”
Coupled with administrators who seemed to respond with indifference — or worse — the aggression became too much to bear, both said. Funk and Smith said they eventually were encouraged to file complaints with the Oregon Department of Education. A legal clinic run by students at the Willamette University College of Law in Salem, about 160 miles northeast of North Bend, took on their case.
In April, a Willamette law professor reached out to the ACLU of Oregon for its help because it was “one of the worst case of discrimination at a school that she had ever seen,” the group said in a memo, which accused the district of trying to sweep years of discrimination under the rug.
Though its investigation took months, the state education department found “substantial evidence of discrimination and other violations of state and federal law” at North Bend High School. On Monday, the ACLU of Oregon and the school district reached a settlement that dictated that Bill Lucero, principal of North Bend High School, be removed from his job.
In addition, the North Bend Police Department must remove Jason Griggs, the school resource officer who told Funk she was going to hell for being gay, the ACLU said. The North Bend School District also must remain under supervision of the Oregon education department for five years, and work with the ACLU to develop policies and training to prevent future discrimination.
“It sends a clear message to everyone at the district,” said Mat dos Santos, legal director for the ACLU of Oregon. “If you break the law by discriminating against LGBTQ students or engaging in religious proselytization at school, there are serious consequences.”
In a statement Monday, the district said it was “pleased” to have reached a resolution regarding Smith’s and Funk’s complaints.
“The District has been, and will continue to be, committed to improving its school environment for all students, including LGBTQ students,” the district said.
The district did not immediately respond to requests for further comment. The Washington Post was unable to reach Lucero or Griggs.
As part of the settlement, the high school will create a committee on diversity and inclusion, and also celebrate Coming Out Day, Ally Week and an annual diversity award. Neither Smith nor Funk requested monetary damages but asked the school to donate $1,000 to a local LGBTQ support group, Q&A of Coos County.
As word got out about Smith and Funk’s case, more people — including North Bend students, alumni, parents and staff — came forward with other allegations of discrimination at the school, the ACLU of Oregon said:
A transgender boy was refused permission to play on the boys’ basketball team. One black student was forced to line up with his swim teammates from lightest to darkest skin color. Another black student was regularly subjected to racist slurs and name calling by his teammates, including the principal’s son, over his repeated requests that they stop using a modification to the n-word as his nickname. An exchange student from Spain was awarded the “Best Mexican” award by the swim team.
Smith, now 19, no longer attends the school but said she hopes the move will create a more positive environment for allies at the school.
“I think there are a lot of teachers, staff and community members in North Bend who do support LGBTQ students,” Smith said. “Under a more supportive school administration, I hope they will no longer be afraid to show their support.”
Funk, 18, is now a senior who is graduating this month but said she is relieved to be able to positively change the school district for future students.
“When freshmen arrive in the fall, I want them to have a different experience: a school where everybody feels welcome and safe, no matter who they are or whose hand they happen to hold,” Funk wrote.