Interview: Sierra Norman Fought For Her Educational Rights And Won

My mom has always taught me to stand up for myself.

My name is Sierra Norman. I’m currently a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College studying pre-medical / psychology with plans to become a pediatric psychiatrist. I attended Declo High School in Idaho where I was barred from running for student body president. The school claimed their decision not to allow me to run was because I was not a full-time student—due to my online enrollment through Idaho Digital Learning Academy in dual credit and advanced placement courses that were not offered at Declo High School (IDLA is an extension of the public school system, the school must sign me up for courses and the school assigns a grade based on my performance in the course. The school must also sign a Memorandum of Understanding that they will not discriminate against students taking IDLA courses). The school had no definition of what a full-time student would be in their Constitution, so they turned to the Idaho High School Activities Association, 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.) My would-be opponent was also taking IDLA classes and leaving school grounds to attend a religion release class. Therefore, had the rules been enforced for the other candidate, my would-be opponent would have prohibited from running as well. However the school and school district allowed him to run unopposed and therefore win, because they took into account his religion release class to count towards his full-time status. There were obviously policy issues within the school’s constitution. After addressing these issues to the principal, then superintendent, and finally the district school board with no results, I contacted the ACLU of Idaho and after reviewing my case, they decided to take it on. We have spent the past 2.5+ years fighting for a positive policy change that provides equal education to all students. This October we finally achieved it!

GS&NS: Your story details discrimination from students and staff at Declo High School and community leaders - how much of that do you think was driven by religion and/or gender?

Sierra: I believe wholeheartedly this was all driven by discrimination that included religion and gender…had I not I would not have contacted the ACLU. The two differences between my would-be opponent and I were gender and religion. Had we both been held to the same rule of the school’s created definition of what a full-time student was, neither of us would have been eligible to for student body president. The school principal admitted in an email that he and the male student body advisor took into account his religion release class (which he left school grounds during school hours to attend) when determining his full-time status because they “knew where he was at”. My family and I do not practice the religion and I therefore, was not taking the religion release class. 

GS&NS: Given the level of harassment, why did you choose to continue attending DHS?

Sierra: My mom has always taught me to stand up for myself. I had done nothing wrong and I was not about to let them scare me off. I knew I was fighting for the right thing. 

GS&NS: Was there a specific moment that led you to contact the ACLU? What did you hope to achieve?

Sierra: After talking to the principal, and then the superintendent, and getting nowhere with policy changes, my mother and I attended the school board meeting. I had already looked into presenting this issued to the ACLU at this point. At the school board meeting, we were ridiculed by the chairman and when mentioned that this would be brought to the ACLU’s attention, his final words were “You do what you have to do, Miss Norman.”

GS&NS: How has this experience informed your opinions on feminism/gender equality and education?

Sierra: I was raised in a home where acceptance was very important. It doesn't matter what race, religion, orientation, etc. a person is, it was what is on the inside that counts. My experience in Declo showed me that there are still places in the world that are so isolated from the progressive movement of equality for everyone. I was shocked, but it taught me the importance of really standing up for what I knew was right, even in the face of so much adversity. I believe it is important to lead by example and I hope the changes that came of it continue to make a positive impact. 

GS&NS: Talk to the Declo community - what else do you want them to know or understand about your experience in that town?

Sierra: So many rumors emerged throughout this situation. Most importantly, I want the community to know this was never about suing the school to get money, it was always been about getting a positive policy change that will protect future students from having to go through what I did during my time at Declo High School. A lot of hateful things were directed towards my family and I, but I want to let the community know I forgive them. I hope reading my story has allowed them to understand why I fought for positive policy changes and that this has opened their eyes. 

My experience in Declo showed me that there are still places in the world that are so isolated from the progressive movement of equality for everyone. I was shocked, but it taught me the importance of really standing up for what I knew was right, even in the face of so much adversity.

GS&NS: Finally, give some advice to your high school self (and hopefully to other teens feeling marginalized and silenced because of their identity):

Sierra: Don’t ever let anyone try and stop you from being who you are. Stand up for yourself and what you believe in! It’s worth it. True friends will stick beside you through difficult times and those that don’t aren’t worth your time. You are important and deserve to be treated as such. 

Read Sierra's full account of her lawsuit against Cassia County School District on Her Campus.