Lior Onaly-Kelsey celebrated their 15th birthday two weeks ago. They also celebrated the end of a years-long battle against Greater Albany Public School District.
A federal jury in Eugene this month awarded them $317,353 in damages, concluding the district had discriminated against Onaly-Kelsey when they were in the third grade and failed to properly respond to harassment and bullying.
At a park near their house, Onaly-Kelsey seems happy and curious, eagerly sharing stories about rock climbing and participating in their current school’s robotics club.
Their excitement to be a teen attending a Corvallis high school is a stark difference from their emotions as an Albany elementary school student.
Born in Paris, France, Onaly-Kelsey and their mom, Elaine Kelsey, moved to Albany in 2015. Onaly-Kelsey started attending Oak Grove Elementary School in the second grade and began to identify as non-binary in the third grade, at age 8.
The bullying started soon after, they said.
Onaly-Kelsey remembers students threatening to remove Onaly-Kelsey’s clothes and being called slurs and various names. They were given incorrect dates to apply to join the robotics club, they said, despite those in charge being aware of their interest.
They said they were forced to join the girl’s robotics team whose uniform included a pink tutu. Their mom was shown a group chat of other parents making fun of them and their preference to dress more masculine, Onaly-Kelsey said.
The existence of the group chat wasn’t surprising based on reactions, Kelsey said.
“It was just really hard to see adults sort of mocking and saying aggressive things about your child,” she said. “It’s just really kind of scary, I think. Quite disturbing.”
Reports to school and district administration weren’t taken seriously, Onaly-Kelsey said.
Evidence presented to a federal jury in Eugene included emails between Kelsey and former Oak Grove Elementary School Principal Jerrie Matuszak. The jury agreed Matuszak failed to investigate or intervene properly.
‘It got really bad really fast’
By the fifth grade, Onaly-Kelsey’s grades continued to slip and their mental health continued to deteriorate.
“It got really bad really fast,” Kelsey said, adding that Onaly-Kelsey lost hope.
Kelsey said she knew she needed to do something when on a drive Onaly-Kelsey bluntly told their mom they didn’t think the world would ever accept someone like them. She can’t forget having to drive with one hand and keeping her child from jumping from the moving vehicle with the other.
Kelsey pulled Onaly-Kelsey out of school and they began attending a district online school. But things did not improve, Kelsey said.
She remembers an administrator telling her the family should not have expected people in Linn County to be accepting of a non-binary person.
That was when Kelsey connected with a lawyer to assist in an emergency transfer out of the district and into Corvallis School District.
“The experience has been night and day,” Onaly-Kelsey said.
There’s an active and welcoming Pride club that has helped Onaly-Kelsey find community. They joined the Students Advocating for Equity program where school board members show up to meetings and listen to students speak about issues surrounding equity. Non-binary staff have also become close allies.
Kelsey said others warned her that switching districts was futile, but that hasn’t been the case. It’s not that Onaly-Kelsey doesn’t face bullying anymore, but that the district and their school shut the behavior down immediately, she said.
There has been zero tolerance for bullying, she said.
Looking toward the future
Onaly-Kelsey said they hope the conclusion of the discrimination lawsuit against the Greater Albany School District means the start of “normal” life. But they are also optimistic about what the jury’s decision means for other non-binary students in the state.
There are more than 1,700 non-binary students in Oregon, according to Oregon Department of Education data. The 2021-2022 school year marked the third year in a row where the number of non-binary students increased.
The lawsuit wasn’t easy, but it was important to continue to bring change, Onaly-Kelsey said.
“I’m hoping that this lawsuit creates a ripple effect and sends a message to school districts that the law is important and there are repercussions to not following the law,” they added.
Onaly-Kelsey is also hopeful about their own future.
They dream of combining their passion for law and robotics into a career, maybe patent or technology law.
For now, they are focusing on their next major goal: learning to drive.
Dianne Lugo covers the Oregon Legislature and equity issues. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @DianneLugo
This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Nonbinary student wins discrimination suit, looking at what comes now