Greater Albany Public Schools and former Oak Grove Elementary School Principal Jerrie Matuszak violated Oregon law, the U.S. Constitution and the federal sex-based protections known as Title IX by discriminating against a former elementary school student for their gender identity.
That’s the finding of a federal jury that concluded a four-day trial in Eugene late last week.
Lior Onaly-Kelsey, now 15, was eight years old and in third grade when other students at Oak Grove began to bully and harass them because they are nonbinary, according to a press release sent Monday by Johnson, Johnson, Lucas & Middleton, P.C., the firm representing Onaly-Kelsey.
Evidence showed that, among other things, children called Onaly-Kelsey degrading names such as “the devil’s spawn” and threatened to forcibly remove their clothes to “see what sex they were.”
The court found that then-principal Matuszak knew of the bullying but did not investigate or intervene.
By fifth grade, the bullying had become so severe that Onaly-Kelsey transferred to an online school and then out of the district. Matuszak is now retired from the district, according to Greater Albany officials.
“I am so glad that there was justice,” Onaly-Kelsey, who now attends high school in Corvallis, said in a statement regarding the jury’s decision. “This lawsuit was me regaining my power, that I did not have for a long time. I know I have that back now.”
Attorney Caitlin Mitchell added that Onaly-Kelsey not only stood up for themselves “but for countless other LGBTQIA+ students.” The latest statewide data show more than 1,770 students in Oregon are nonbinary.
Elaine Kelsey, Onaly-Kelsey’s mother, said she hopes this means the Greater Albany school district will take the law seriously moving forward. “No other child should have to endure what my child experienced,” she said.
The jury awarded Onaly-Kelsey $317,353 in compensation.
Superintendent Andy Gardner, who began leading Greater Albany schools last year, said the events related to the dispute began in 2017. Since then, the district has made several changes, including developing a strategic plan “rooted in equity,” creating a new equity, diversity and inclusion department and updating the district’s bias incident response procedures.
Gardner said the district has been leaning on the Oregon Department of Education’s Supporting Gender Expansion Students guidance, which was released in January. He said the guidance helps staff understand how to best support LGBTQ students and “create classroom environments in which all students may thrive.”
He said, “We believe it’s wholly important our schools are safe for all kids.”