Outdoor School is a rite of passage for many Oregon students, when pre-teen students across the state spend multiple days in the wilderness learning about the outdoors.
The sixth grade students of Culver Schools, a small district in rural Central Oregon, were scheduled for a three-day, two-night stay at Camp Tamarack in nearby Sisters starting Oct. 17. It didn’t go according to plan.
Several hours into the trip, the school bus returned, loaded up all the students and their belongings, and took them back to Culver. The reason: District officials learned nonbinary counselors would be sharing cabins with the students, according to letters sent to parents later that day.
Interviews with the district and emails from Oct. 18 show school officials took little deliberation before pulling students from the camp. Much of the district’s concerns were based on misinformation about Camp Tamarack and its nonbinary counselors, and the actions could potentially cost the district thousands of dollars in state funding.
Superintendent Stefanie Garber later wrote to parents, saying some students had expressed discomfort with staying in a cabin with a nonbinary person, particularly with dressing and showering in front of the high school-aged counselors.
She said she heard about the concerns from Culver Middle School Principal Brad Kudlac, who himself had heard it from teachers present at the camp.
“We stand for the emotional, physical and mental safety of the kids, and we stand for clear open communication,” Garber said to OPB. “So we had to err on the side of caution.”
Garber did not know how many students expressed discomfort or if they had actually requested they be taken home. She said that she was in the middle of conducting job interviews and took only around 15 minutes before deciding to send a bus, which was at another school district for a sporting event, back to Camp Tamarack.
‘There were tears’
Camp Tamarack Executive Director Charlie Anderson said that Garber and the district operated on incorrect information about the camp. He said each cabin has a private changing room, which students were made aware of, and that students do not shower during Outdoor School and would therefore never have been in a shower with a counselor.
He said the camp had no idea students were uncomfortable or that they were going home until the buses arrived. Students, he said, seemed upset when they found out.
“There was a lot of confusion — there were tears,” Anderson said. “When that was being taken away from them, there was sadness felt everywhere.”
Garber said the district could have done better in communicating with the camp, but also told parents she wished Camp Tamarack had informed her about the presence of nonbinary counselors. Anderson disagreed and said doing so would’ve been discriminatory and violated state law.
Culver’s withdrawal from Outdoor School comes as queer people across the country, especially those who are transgender and nonbinary, have faced increasing attacks from conservatives who claim these LGBTQ people are either “groomers” or pedophiles. Various state legislatures have considered and even passed laws limiting discussion of or exposure to LGBTQ topics around children.
Over the weekend, conservative protesters gathered in Eugene, at times throwing punches and brandishing weapons, to oppose a children’s story hour that had drag performers present.
Garber said she did not consider the broader political attack on LGBTQ people when deciding to bring the students home.
Counselors feel targeted
LGBTQ counselors at Camp Tamarack are nothing new. Anderson said the camp has operated as an outdoor school since 2013 and has worked to create an affirming environment for counselors. Transgender counselors, he said, have stayed in cabins before with zero complaints, and Culver students have come to the camp for several years.
August Singer of Portland worked as a counselor at Camp Tamarack for four years. In his journey toward coming out as a transgender man, he said, working at the camp was integral in building his confidence.
He said students sometimes asked questions about the counselors’ identities, but that it was never an issue.
“Schools are sanctioning so much more transphobia than it seems like they used to,” Singer said. “We’re not something that needs to be warned against. We’re not villains, we’re not dangers.”
Bluff Elementary School in Madras announced last week that its students would no longer spend the night at Camp Tamarack and would instead be dropped off and picked up each day. Anderson said he doesn’t know why this happened, but that this decision came days after Culver administrators decided to abruptly pull their students out.
The Jefferson County School District in Madras could not be reached for comment before publication.
A spokesperson from Bend-LaPine Schools said they had received similar concerns from parents, but told families the district would not cancel programming and they could opt out of the camp if they were uncomfortable.
It’s unclear if the Culver district’s actions potentially violate state law. Oregon Department of Education spokesperson Marc Siegel said it’s against state policy to discriminate based on gender identity. He said anyone who believes discrimination occurred can file a complaint with the school district.
Removing the students could cost the Culver district financially. Garber said the school district received nearly $20,000 from the state to send students to the camp. She said she doesn’t know what will happen to that funding.
Garber said she did not believe the district had discriminated or demonstrated transphobic behavior toward the counselors and that her district has many queer students. She said part of her concern was students potentially making fun of the counselors for their gender identity, although she could not say if that actually happened. She called her decision a “no-win situation.”
“To protect the high school counselors and to protect our kids, it felt best to retreat, regroup, have the adults figure things out, and try again,” she said.
Anderson told OPB that the counselors did feel uncomfortable and singled out, and that he felt the district had discriminated against his staff by removing its students.
“You ultimately are having an entire school leave because of someone and their identity,” he said. “You’re calling out that individual, who is a young adult themselves — and I can only imagine what that must feel like.”
He said he hopes the situation can become a learning opportunity and a chance for Central Oregon to rally around its LGBTQ residents, something that hasn’t always happened.