I Did What I Had To Do

Now that my case against Declo High School (DHS) and the Cassia County School District (CCSD) has FINALLY come to an end, I would like to share the details of the litigation. Many rumors have emerged over the two and a half years this case has stretched on, so it is important to separate the facts from fiction, so this beast can finally be put to rest.

*Important Note: This was NEVER about any monetary compensation, only about doing what was right for education not just in CCSD, but across Idaho.

Background

Right before my freshman year of high school, I moved to a small, rural town in Idaho called Declo. Right away, I became very involved in my school; participating in cheerleading, Trendsetters (show choir), D.S.O.P.P. (community service club), Business Professionals of America, F.I.R.S.T. Robotics, National Honor Society, Spanish Club, and Drama. I would go on to become Sophomore and Junior Class President. However, these positions were not won through “popularity” but merit as the students knew I could get things done. I was still an outsider. 

In the beginning, I loved Declo. I had made some great friends, enjoyed the various clubs I participated in, and everyone was so welcoming. But then the questions began, “What ward was I in?” “Where did my dad go on his mission?”. My responses quickly circulated throughout the small town, informing my peers and the community that I was not Mormon, the religion predominately practiced in Declo and the surrounding areas. Then, I was being invited to Mutual Activities, Stake Dances, and Girl’s Camp. In order to attend Girl’s Camp the summer after my freshman year, I had to be interviewed by the Bishop, where I was flat out asked if I would be converting to Mormonism. I said I was not sure, but when Girl’s Camp ended and the months passed by, it became clear to my peers and the community that I would not be converting. And in addition to that, I did not conform to what their idea of “outsiders” were. I am a go-getter, have big dreams, and have been recognized on local, state, and national levels for my extracurricular involvement. Education has always been very important to me. DHS students and teachers were surprised I wanted to go to college to get an education, not a husband. I wanted to pursue a career I was passionate about in pediatric psychiatry, one that would allow me to provide for myself and family while making a positive impact in young people's lives.

As my time at DHS continued, the exclusion became worse. Freshman year I was harassed for going to Prom before I was 16 years old and wearing a dress that showed my shoulders and knees. The assistant cheer coach would continually criticize my weight in front of other students and faculty at cheer practice. During the winter of my junior year, the junior class advisor and DHS principal said we as a junior class could adopt a family for the holidays (I had hosted this program the previous year as Sophomore Class President and we receive such tremendous support from the community we adopted two families). I worked with the Declo Elementary School principal and received a recommendation of a local family in need, a single mother with five small children, and got a wish list from each of the young children. When I went back to the advisor for her sign-off on the bulletin announcement promoting the activity, she refused to sign off saying we could no longer adopt a family. A student had decided to do a canned food drive for his senior project that week and she said this program would “out shine” it. Based on her and the principal’s prior approval, I told her the family had already been selected and notified. Her response was “well, maybe you shouldn’t have done that.” The principal also went back on his word and we were not allowed to adopt a family as the junior class. My family and the Junior Class Vice President purchased gifts and food so that our adopted family would still have the Christmas we promised them. I invited the students and staff of DHS to our night out shopping for the family and not one of them attended. I had several more incidents at DHS, this is just a broad overview. As the end of my junior year was approaching, I did not think things could get much worse. Jinx.

Student Body President Elections

The week of April 21, 2014, it was announced that Student Body President petitions were available to be picked up. I was so excited, it was finally time to check off my first big high school goal and have the opportunity to use my leadership skills on a school wide level! I picked up my petition, got the required signatures, and turned it back in to the Student Body advisor, Jeff Roper, prior to the deadline. The next day, I was home sick and received a voicemail from Roper, stating that I would not be allowed to run for the position of Student Body President because I was not considered a “full-time” student. My junior year, I had been enrolled in four Advanced Placement/Dual Credit courses through Idaho Digital Learning Academy (IDLA), classes not offered at DHS. I completed these courses in the school library, during school hours. This was a well known fact, as students and staff often saw me sitting in the library and stopped to chit-chat. Even Roper pulled me away from my studies to help him grade Senior Project posters. Due to the constant interruptions, the librarian allowed me to move to a back room to complete my courses. My absences were recorded.

Roper and DHS principal Roland Bott decided that IDLA classes would not be eligible to count towards my “full-time” status because they are not “in-school” classes. IDLA is not an independent school and I cannot graduate with a diploma from IDLA. It is an extension of the public schooling system of Idaho which allows students access to a broader range of classes, especially in small rural communities such as Declo. School districts are required to sign IDLA’s Memorandum of Understanding that specifically addresses the issue of discrimination against its participants. The school must sign me up for (and in most cases pay for) the courses and they are responsible for assigning a grade based on my performance in the course.

The school claimed they made the decision not to allow me to run for the position of Student Body President based on the Constitution of Declo High School, which states a student must be full-time in order to run for an office. However, there was no written indication of what a full-time student is. When asked how this was determined, Bott stated that they turned to the Idaho High School Activities Association manual, which states a student must be ”PASSING” six of eight classes in order to participate in school activities, and changed it to define a full-time student as taking six of eight classes at DHS. With such high educational ambitions for my future, I was not only passing six of my eight classes, I was excelling. I was ranked #1 in my class with a cumulative 4.0 GPA and had earned a 95+% in each college level course I took online. 

Upon further research, it was found that DHS and CCSD were receiving full-time funding for me from the state. Yet, they were limiting my participation to that of a part-time student.

What makes this whole situation even more unfair is that the other student, who was allowed to run unopposed and take the position of Student Body President, was also enrolled in multiple IDLA classes and a religion release class. Therefore, if this student had been held to the same standards as I was, he would not have been allowed to run either. However, when asked, Bott admitted in an email that the student’s religion release class was taken into account when determining his full-time status because “they knew where he was.” 

My mom and I tried to resolve this situation at the school level with Bott. When that proved to be unsuccessful, we went to the school district, and finally, after getting nowhere with the two, the district school board. We attended the Cassia County School Board meeting on May 20, 2014 to discuss the situation further. I went into the meeting not seeking a reelection, as the elections had already come and gone. However, this was not my first (or second, or even third) negative experience with no resolution at DHS and I wanted to let them know that I would not tolerate their behavior any longer.

However, the meeting did not go well. Of the five board members, Steve Lynch, Ryan Cranney, and Heber Loughmiller were very condescending and rude throughout the meeting. Loughmiller went as far as to accuse me of “using” DHS because I would not be transferring to another school my senior year. (Why should I tuck tail and run while all I wanted was a more rigorous education and to be involved in my school?) At the meeting, Roper stated that he needed a full-time body on school grounds, during school hours (8:20am - 3:20pm). My would-be opponent was not taking the “required” six of eight classes during school hours at DHS and, in addition, was leaving campus during school hours for a religion release class. Linda Petersen was the only board member who was sympathetic and kind throughout the meeting. She offered words of comfort and advice, encouraging me not to let this situation have a lasting negative effect. After it became clear we would get no resolution through the school board, my mom and I said we would be presenting the issue to the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho (ACLU) and stood to leave. The final words as we were walking out came from Lynch in a condescending, taunting tone: “You do what you have to do, Miss Norman.”

I did what I had to do and got in contact with the ACLU, a *non-profit* organization that protects constitutional rights. On October 16th, 2014, the ACLU filed a civil rights complaint against Declo High School and the Cassia County School District on my behalf. 

Initial Backlash

On September 10, 2014, the first article hit in the local paper, publicly announcing my partnership with the ACLU. As you can imagine, the tiny town did not react well. Social media went crazy and I began receiving a lot of cyber-attacks. I had requested that my would-be opponent’s name be kept out of the press, as he was also a victim of the school’s injustice. However, he was just as eager to join in the cyberbullying as the rest of the community. He called me “Satan” on Twitter and another commented that I would “fly back to the underworld.” Other various threats and comments were made on how much I was “hated”, should be “slapped in the face”, and just “leave” because it was my “fault” the community was breaking apart. For one student “there is nothing [he] would not do to ensure” it did not happen further. It was posted to the public forum comments on the local newspaper’s website that I was a blood-sucking, man-hating, feminazi (with a few other choice words), which were deleted by the newspaper moderators for its content. Some of these comments came from the then Student Body President (2014-2015) and Senior Class President (2014-2015), as well as the future Student Body President (2015-2016). The then Student Body President (2014-2015) and Senior Class President (2014-2015) went public to the local newspaper stating that my bullying by peers and the community was “unacceptable”…which is *funny* considering they were some of my biggest bullies. Other various social media comments were made by DHS staff and faculty, as well as strangers in the community. It is safe to say that I have developed a “tougher skin” throughout this ordeal and quickly learned how to brush off the comments.

On October, 28th 2014, the ACLU received a letter from the 2013-2014 Student Body President. She was female and a non-mormon who did not think she was discriminated against and therefore felt my claims against the school were nonexistent. However, just because the school chooses not to discriminate against one student does not mean they are incapable of discriminating against other students. We are two separate individuals who could not be more different. She slipped into the way of life at DHS much easier than I did. I have always been overly outgoing with my involvements and do not conform to the majority. I know what hard work is and have had to do just that to earn every one of my achievements. I have failed and lost time and time again, but have learned how to get up, brush myself off, and try again. And I do it all because I love it all. I love being involved. I love learning. I love helping out in my community. I love meeting new people. I love having new experiences. I love living life! No matter what the reason was for choosing me as a target, I am just so happy that she did not have to go through what I did at DHS.

A DHS teacher pulled me aside after class one day to tell me some very concerning news. She had heard that DHS teacher and basketball coach Val Christensen had commented “someone needs to Ray Rice that girl” (in reference to Ray Rice, infamous for punching his fiancé in the face so hard she lost consciousness) while the topic of my case was being discussed in the teacher’s lounge, in the presence of multiple teachers. (The Daily BeastRawStory) I was shocked. I had had Christensen as a Geometry teacher my freshman year at DHS. He had been one of my favorite teachers and I felt he really went above and beyond. He had supported my various extracurricular activities, even helping me practice my communication skills in preparation for the Miss Idaho’s Outstanding Teen scholarship program. I could handle my peer’s retributions, we had never really been close anyways. But to hear that someone you once admired; someone who is a role model to young men on the basketball team; and someone who probably has daughters, granddaughters, and other women he cares about; had said something so terrible and violent against women…I was, and am still, at a loss for words. The incident was reported to Bott, however there is no record of any investigation on the matter. The school has procedures in place for following up on threats of violence, but none were followed to protect me as a student. In an interview with the Human Rights Commission, Christensen admitted to making the comment, but showed no remorse and received no recorded reprimanding from the school or district.

Changes

Since the beginning of all this, my main goal has been to ensure education would come first in DHS and CCSD and students would have access to the best education possible. No student should be excluded and punished for seeking out a more rigorous education. From the very first meeting with school officials, the most important thing was policy changes. Our state go-on rate is on a downward slope and has already fallen below 50%. We need to be promoting education for our students rather than punishing them. Students should not have to choose between getting a great education and participating in school activities.

Per ACLU, DHS was required to update their constitutional policies. Roper decided the student council should be in charge of making the constitutional changes. The committee assigned to define a full-time student met on October 21, 2014 and had an hour long discussion, where we unanimously decided the following:

“Any student, including a dually enrolled student, who lives in a school’s attendance zone or who has been accepted to a school through the open enrollment process, is eligible to participate in any program or activity available at that school.”

With this, we were able to remove arbitrary rules that limited our students, ultimately leaving the decision up to the student body to choose who would best lead their schools. However, Roper would not accept our definition and made us interview faculty of DHS on what they believed a full-time student should be. He picked the people we would interview and he chose the limited four questions we could ask them. He then proceeded to make us create an “opposing” option for the student body to vote on. Understandably, there was a strong bias in the school because they knew why this was being done, therefore the opposing option was selected. There are already Idaho state laws in place that should have protected me from what the school did. The chosen option was unacceptable and still violating the law. The task of defining a full-time student should never have been left up for the student body to decide.

End of Year & Graduation

The school I had once loved had turned into my personal mentally, emotionally, and physically abusive battlefield. My senior year, I took the majority of my classes through IDLA and completed the coursework at home so I spent as little time as possible in that negative environment. However, I had chosen to take three classes at DHS taught by the few kindhearted teachers there. Still, I was shunned by my peers, bad-mouthed about in my presence, shoved by other students, and glared at by students and teachers alike. A lot of people questioned how it could be that bad if I had chosen to stay. My mom taught me to stand up for myself and I was not about to let them scare me off. I knew I was fighting for the right thing, so I held my head high.

As graduation grew closer, the bullying continued. I was excluded from Senior Class activities, such as the annual Lagoon field trip and including my signature with all the other senior signatures on the Senior Sweatshirts. Being ranked #1 in my class, I was the front runner for Valedictorian. Several students on student council were trying to get me removed from the position based on full-time status reasons, so that I would not be able to give a speech at graduation. I was told to my face that students would walk out of graduation if/when I gave my speech. However, DHS had already taken so much away from me and I was not about to let them take away my moment and voice as Valedictorian that I had earned through 12 long years of hard work.

Graduation itself was an *interesting* ordeal. Bott had the then Student Body President (2014-2015) and Senior Class President (2014-2015) spread the word to other students not to walk out during my speech…because it would "look bad" to the media present. Several implied life-threatening remarks were made that prompted my mother and I to request and receive extra armed police patrol attendance during my Valedictorian speech. The ceremony itself was uneventful. No one walked out. Roper put his hands behind his back as a gesture to refuse offering to shake my hand after I accepted my diploma and several other faculty members followed suit. But it hurt their image a lot more than it *hurt* my feelings. Nothing could have brought me down or taken away from the IMMENSE relief I felt walking off that stage, diploma in hand. I had been through Hell and back, but I made it out alive.

Lawsuit & Resolution

My time at DHS was finally over and as much as I would have loved to leave it all behind, I was not done. I could not in good conscience allow them to continue punishing future students the way they had me, so the ACLU and I continued to fight for future students and their right to equal education. Since the beginning, I had made it very clear this was not about seeking any type of monetary compensation. I simply wanted positive changes to be made that would not prohibit future students from being involved in activities, while taking rigorous courses.

As I was no longer a student, and DHS and CCSD were refusing to implement a positive policy change, the ACLU had no other choice but to move forward with a federal lawsuit in Spring 2016, which would entitle the ACLU to compensation for their time. Now, two and a half *long* years later, we are settling out of court. DHS and CCSD are FINALLY revising their constitution to ensure no future student will have to go through what I did. This outcome is nothing more than I was asking for at the school board meeting two and a half years ago. In addition, CCSD will compensate the ACLU for their time and efforts. The ACLU and I will continually ensure that DHS and CCSD are following the appropriate policies and any future changes to the policy will be approved through the ACLU and myself, doing our best to guarantee Idaho students have access to equal education.

Thank Yous

While I can never go back and fulfill my goal of becoming student body president, I know that I accomplished more at DHS than I ever could have as student body president. I was able to leave Declo High School and Cassia County School District a much better place than I found them! I would like DHS, CCSD, and Cassia County School Board to know that I forgive them for the turmoil they caused for me and the community, as well as the students, faculty, and community members for the hate and violence they sent my way. I hope now this is over the community can finally begin to heal. While I have no intention of holding ties with DHS or the community, I do wish them all the best.

I would like to give the ACLU a huge THANK YOU! None of this would have been possible had it not been for their support. They have helped change education, not just in Declo High School and Cassia County School District, but all across Idaho. I am excited to work with the ACLU to ensure these changes continue to be implemented and Idaho's children have access to the best education available to them. 

Thank you to the select few DHS faculty and community members that did stand up for me throughout this process. Your support through all this means more than you will ever know! I also appreciate all the positive messages I have received from community members and people across the nation. 

And last but most certainly not least, I cannot thank my beautiful mother enough for all her support! She has always been my best friend and was there for me at every step of this difficult journey—comforting me after receiving hateful comments (and learning to laugh through them with me); planning fun get-aways and activities to make sure I had positive senior year memories, even if they were not high school ones; and finally, celebrating our victory for education! I would not have been able to survive this without her. She has taught me to be the strong, confident, independent woman I am today, who has and will always stand up for what she believes in!

 

With love,

Sierra Norman

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About The Author

Sierra is a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College where she is studying Pre-Medical / Psychology, with plans to become a pediatric psychiatrist. She is the Campus Correspondent (President) of Her Campus Bryn Mawr. Sierra is an active member of the Bryn Mawr College's Belmont Mentoring Club and visits Belmont Charter School once a week to mentor young students. She has always been passionate about helping others and has worked on state and national levels regarding issues from childhood hunger to educational rights. In the 4th grade, she created the PB&J Week food drive to collect peanut butter and jelly for hungry children and has since collected over 16,500 jars, all of which has been donated to local food banks. PB&J Week has been awarded a Sodexo Foundation Grant and Disney Friends For Change Grant. Sierra also created Snotty is Naughty, a workshop used to educate girls on the negative effects of girl-to-girl meanness. Because of her work with Snotty is Naughty, she was selected by Youth Service America and the Festival of Children’s Foundation to represent Idaho as our National Child Awareness Month Ambassador and received a grant to create a documentary. Sierra was 1st runner up and the scholastic award recipient at Miss Idaho Teen USA 2015 and 1st runner up and the overall talent and scholastic award recipient at Miss Idaho’s Outstanding Teen 2014, and recently placed 4th runner up at Miss Idaho USA 2017. She also enjoys modeling, acting, music, and traveling.

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