When Sierra Norman filed a complaint against her high school for discrimination, a basketball coach allegedly said, “someone should Ray Rice” her.
Norman was a senior at Declo High School in Idaho in 2014 when she says the school barred her from running for student-body president because she was female and not a Mormon. The school said it was because she was not a full-time student. Now two years later she has sued the school, saying it discriminated against her based on gender and religion.
Before going to court this month, Norman first filed a complaint with the Idaho Human Rights Commission in 2014.
That didn’t go over well with basketball coach Val Christensen, according to Norman.
“A teacher brought it to my attention that a basketball coach said ‘someone should Ray Rice Sierra,’” she said, a reference to NFL player Ray Rice punching his fianceé so hard in 2014 that she was rendered unconscious.
“I was scared to go back to school.”
Norman’s attorney, Richard Eppink, said it’s unclear if the school disciplined Christensen for his alleged remark.
“Whatever they did with respect to the Ray Rice comment, there was no record,” he said. “There was no written report so we don’t know what they did.”
Neither Christensen nor Superintendent Gaylen Smyer responded to a request for comment by The Daily Beast. Principal Roland Bott would only say that Christensen now works part-time at the school.
Norman had moved from Twin Falls, Idaho (population 45,981), to Albion (population 272) as a freshman and enrolled in next-door Declo High School. At first the community was welcoming, she said, but when people realized she wasn’t Mormon, the friendliness stopped.
Norman said she got the same treatment by teacher Jeff Roper when she sought to run for student-body president.
Roper, who was in charge of student government, told Norman that she was ineligible because she wasn’t a full-time student. Norman went to the school for the entire day and was taking two online courses.
“It was a very small rural community and they didn’t offer the AP classes or foreign language classes I wanted to take,” she told The Daily Beast. “So I was taking those online and they weren’t considered a part of my full-time status.”
When asked to explain what a “full-time student” was, the complaint said the district used a definition from the Idaho High School Athletic Association Manual that said a student had to be passing six classes to participate in sports. The school didn’t count Norman’s two online courses.
In addition, Norman said Roper told her that the student-body president needed to be available during school hours in case she was needed. Norman noted she took the online classes in the Declo school library.
Up against a male student-body adviser, superintendent, and a majority-male school board—plus the majority Mormon school—Norman said she had no other recourse left but to sue.
“We tried to resolve it at the high school level and we presented the case to them, we took it to the superintendent, we took this to the school board and were literally laughed at by this really condescending man and then we took it to the ACLU,” she said. “We decided the only way they are really going to hear us and change their ways is to file this lawsuit.”
After investigating further, interviewing a number of witnesses, and going over school documents, Eppink, who works for the ACLU, said they realized something else was going on.
“Our claim is that these reasons that they gave were just pretexts for treating someone differently for no justifiable reason and I think they’ll probably tell you that their reason was justifiable but ultimately the court or a jury will have to decide,” Eppink said.
Norman’s senior year was a whirlwind; she ended up taking only two classes at Declo and the rest online. Nevertheless, she graduated valedictorian of her class in 2015 and spoke at graduation.
“I received so many Facebook messages and snarky tweets,” Norman said. “Just because of some comments students had made leading up to graduation my mom and I, we went to the local police department and told them, you know, what was going on and they thought it would be a good idea to have some police reinforcements [at graduation] just in case.”
Norman’s mom, Janeil, even admits she wasn’t sure if her daughter should stay.
“That little girl would come home and crawl into my lap and just sob and I’d ask if she wanted to transfer and she looked at me one day and asked, ‘Why should I be the one that leaves?’”