The pandemic wreaked havoc on education and Oregon's students. But for some, remote learning provided relief.
Data obtained by Pamplin Media Group from Portland Public Schools shows that attendance among the district's nonbinary students — a term used to describe people whose gender identity is neither exclusively woman nor man — spiked during the 2020-21 school year.
In the first quarter of the 2019-20 school year, the attendance rate among nonbinary elementary students at PPS was only 69%, and just 57% for middle and high schoolers. The following year, it jumped to 82% for elementary students — an 11% increase over the prior year — and 80% for middle and high schoolers. By the second quarter of the 2020-21 school year, nonbinary elementary students showed a regular attendance rate of nearly 85%.
Middle and high schoolers saw a decline, with a 74% attendance rate, but still higher than that of the previous year.
Statewide, school districts in 2018-19 began offering three options for students to list for their gender, according to the Oregon Department of Education. Since then, the Portland school district has been able to track the attendance rates of its nonbinary students as a demographic, the same way it does students of different races and ethnicities.
"We began tracking nonbinary students to better support and understand the experiences of these students as they move through our system," said Karen Werstein, public information officer for PPS. "Previously, these students were invisible in the system."
While attendance standards were relaxed heavily during distance learning, LGBTQ+ students say there's a clear reason why they feel safer and more likely to engage with school off-campus.
"I think it's a common experience for queer students in PPS to feel alienated, particularly from people of our own gender or sex at the time," said Ben, 17, a high school junior whose last name is being withheld at the student's request for privacy and safety concerns.
Worse, the bullying, harassment and threat of physical violence at school is ever-present.
"Sophomore year, I was taking a night class at Benson High for math," Ben recalled. "I was walking down the hallway one day and a kid tried to beat me up on the basis that I was queer. I have this very vivid memory of him trying to slam me into a locker and record me and there was no one around. I got away, but I had to take a math test. I just remember shaking the whole time and thinking 'this is so f---ing stupid that I have to do this right after someone tried to beat my ass for being gay.'"
Jasmine, whose real name has been changed for this story, shared her experiences as a pansexual Latina student in Gresham-Barlow School District. Pansexuality means that a person is attracted to all genders, regardless of their sex or gender identity. Jasmine spoke on the condition of anonymity for the fear of bullying and backlash.
She said that, as a student at Dexter McCarty Middle School, she usually would walk into the head secretary's office to find solace from students bullying her about her gender, ethnicity or sexual identity.
The 15-year-old said the bullying stopped last year when school districts across the state switched to distance learning.
"There are still comments that people randomly make … but for the most part, it's completely gone," she said. "A big part of it was that I would see these people in-person, and I had no choice but to see that. … With online learning, no one says anything in our classroom. I can just take those people off of social media. So, I just stopped the interaction."
Jasmine now attends Gresham High School virtually. The school district declined to provide attendance data for its nonbinary students, saying the number of students in that group is small enough to trigger federal privacy laws that prohibit publishing information that could jeopardize student confidentiality.
Changes across nation
Nonbinary and transgender people historically have been the subject of discrimination. They're also more frequently the victims of hate crimes, according to 2020 Uniform Crime Report data issued by the FBI, showing an uptick in hate crimes since 2019.
On June 16, the U.S. Department of Education announced it will apply Title IX protections to gay, transgender and gender nonconforming students, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision the year prior.
Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a federal law stating, "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
That court decision deemed that discrimination against someone based on their gender identity or sexual orientation was discrimination "on the basis of sex."
The law historically had been applied to workplaces.
Despite a federal directive issued by President Joe Biden banning discrimination based on gender identity in school sports, transgender and nonbinary youth have been the target of discrimination in multiple states. Prior to the Education Department's announcement of expanded protections, states like Idaho, West Virginia and Tennessee, to name a few, effectively banned transgender girls from competing in women's sports, ruling they needed to compete according to their assigned sex at birth. In March, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchison vetoed a bill that sought to ban gender-affirming surgeries for transgender youth.
The new federal directives have yet to impact overall school climate and culture.
For students like Jasmine and Ben, there's a potent, underlying reality to most campus environments that immediately makes them feel "othered."
"I don't think we have the structures in our schools to address the experiences of queer students, Black students, Asian students, Latinx students," Ben said.
Isolation in a crowd
Ben's world changed at a fairly young age.
"For me, I was a boy mainly hanging out with girls," the teen said. "Growing up I never really had the option of being in the closet. People kind of assumed I was gay. When I did come out, I was the first person to come out in sixth grade. I kind of became 'the gay kid' in my middle school."
Feelings of low self-esteem, isolation, rejection and eventual bullying became pervasive, spilling over into life outside of school.
"It's the specific combination of isolation and how I reacted to it. Because I felt so unpopular and unliked and really not beautiful, I developed an eating disorder, anorexia, in eighth grade," Ben said. "As I got into high school, these problems started to magnify."
Ben turned to coping mechanisms and looked for social scenes outside of school. Up until fairly recently, high school was marked by risky, often dangerous, self-destructive behavior.
"When I got into high school, I got heavy into drinking and partying and drug addiction," Ben said. "Because that was the only scene I felt I could fit into."
Queer students also note issues with curriculum and access to services.
As a young teen, Jasmine already had to navigate being the first person in her family to come out. Once she did, she quickly noticed a sexual education curriculum that left her out of the equation.
"In my health class, we didn't talk about sex between LGBTQ people. We just talked about penetrative sex," she said.
The Gresham student suggested that the district should expand its sexual education curriculum to include all students in the conversation.
Ben said that, while counselors were available at school, there was a disconnect, because most of the counseling staff were white, presumably heterosexual and cisgender; a term relating to people whose personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex.
Simply put, none of them seemed to share or have any of the same lived experiences as queer students.
"I never got to talk to a queer person about my experience in school. I think that would've made the difference," said Ben, who said school environment contributed strongly to their eating disorder. "Do I think that's the only cause? No. Do I think it worsened what was already a complex emotional issue? Yes."
Portland Public Schools says it's working to better serve its transgender and nonbinary students, and already has several resources in place geared toward LGBTQ+ youth, including a gender and sexuality alliance and a web page with a list of resources and information.
The district is also working on plans to officially recognize LGBTQ+ Pride month each June.
This story is part of a series called "The Long Division" which examines the pandemic's impacts on minority students in Oregon. The series can be found online.
The Long Division
For the past several months, Pamplin Media Group has been examining K-12 public education in Oregon, specifically the gap between how well students of color are doing during the pandemic compared to their white classmates.
With exceptions, the gap between those services — the long division based on race, as well as economic factors — grew worse during the months of distance learning forced by COVID-19.
We also found several districts seeking solutions to this longstanding problem.
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