Outdoor School becomes focus of controversy
Last updated 11/1/2022 at Noon
Outdoor School is a beloved tradition for Oregon sixth-graders. This year, however, it’s become a focus of controversy over how gender identity is handled at Camp Tamarack, and how parents were — or were not — informed about it.
The issue gained broad attention last month when the Culver School District, on October 17, pulled students from a three-day/two-night excursion to the camp west of Sisters after some of them reported feeling uncomfortable with the gender identity of some of the high-school-age counselors. Sisters’ sixth-graders attended camp prior to the Culver incident, October 12-14.
Sisters Middle School Principal Tim Roth told The Nugget that no concerns were raised during or after camp by students or staff. However, one parent who spoke to The Nugget said that his child and several of her friends did express discomfort at home, over counselors who they believed to be female in a male cabin.
“This is hearsay from 11-year-olds that said there were definitely females in male cabins,” Andrew Davis told The Nugget.
Davis said that the issue for him and other parents isn’t so much about gender identity as it is about the right of parents to a full understanding of what the camp experience will be.
“If I’m going to send my child, I need to know what my child is going to experience, what they’re going to be doing, and what they’re going to be exposed to,” he said.
Davis said that he participated in a pre-camp Zoom meeting on September 20, where he asked directly whether the cabins where students stay would be segregated on a male/male-female/female basis. He said that the school district responded in the affirmative — but representatives of Camp Tamarack did not respond to the question.
Roth told The Nugget, “When I was told male/male-female/female, that’s what I heard. I made a follow-up call with Camp Tamarack, and they said yes.”
It was not necessarily clear, however, that that was based on gender identity, not biological sex.
Roth said, “SSD staff and Sisters’ sixth-grade parents (and) our teaching staff stated that boys would be placed in boys cabins, and girls would be placed in girls cabins. After this meeting Sisters School District employees, on two separate occasions, had phone conversions with Camp Tamarack requesting cabins separated by gender, and this was confirmed.
“With that said, please understand that as a public school employee, I am under no disillusion that we have students and families in our schools and community that are navigating gender identity and gender questions.
These individuals are part of our school and our community.
It is our role, actually it is our moral imperative, in public school education to make sure that all students know they are cared for, they feel safe, they are loved, and in return they truly feel they belong.
We understand that the views of our community don’t always align with the fundamental principles of public education.
As public school employees, we do the best we can to sensitively navigate issues that are not in alignment with community values.
Yet, we always try to make decisions through the lens that every single student has a place in our school.”
Camp Tamarack’s Director Charlie Anderson told The Nugget, “At Camp Tamarack we support a student’s right to self-identify as outlined by the Oregon Department of Education; this includes HS (high school) student leaders... Students that identify as male will be placed in male cabins, students that identify as female will be placed in female cabins.”
Anderson also stated that, “I would like to make two other things very clear because there is misinformation being spread about changing and showering while at Outdoor School: Camp Tamarack has private changing areas available for every student who wants to use them regardless of identity, expression, or background. Showering is not a part of the Outdoor School experience. Students do not shower while they are at Camp Tamarack for Outdoor School.”
Davis told The Nugget that had Camp Tamarack representatives stated their position clearly in the meeting, “I would not have felt comfortable with that and would not have sent my child.”
He expressed frustration over what he considers deceitful communication based on omission of key information.
“As a parent, I have a right to ask that question — and it’s very clear,” he said. “We’re playing word games.”
Roth does not believe that Camp Tamarack was trying to mislead parents. He noted that federal law and Oregon Department of Education guidelines put strict parameters around what schools and nonprofits can ask or say about students in regard to gender identity and sexual orientation.
“I think that Camp Tamarack presented the information the best they could without violating federal law and they did their best to honor our request to have males with males, and females with females,” he said.
Camp Tamarack’s website has an extensive values statement that lays out their position on inclusiveness: https://www.camptamarack.com/copy-of-home.
Roth said that, in retrospect, “I would probably intentionally push out the website,” so that parents could draw their own conclusions about how gender identity, and such things as cabin assignments are handled.
Mandee Seeley, a parent who has sent her children to Camp Tamarack because of its stated efforts at inclusiveness, defended the institution.
“I don’t think Camp Tamarack intentionally deceived anyone,” she said. “I think they were protecting their counselors.”
From her perspective, parents should have proactively looked at the Camp website, where it would have been clear to them how the Camp approaches issues of gender.
“We knew this,” she said. “This is part of the reason we were comfortable sending our kids over there — because it is an inclusive space.”
Seeley said she is concerned that the Culver incident, and calls for Sisters to cut ties with Camp Tamarack, will have a chilling effect on prospective counselors. That worries her, because suicide and mental health problems are higher among transgendered and other non-conforming children, “when they can’t be who they are or be safe being who they are in their daily lives.”
Davis sees a gap between the way Culver approached the issue and how Sisters handled it.
“They should have alerted the parents,” he said. “What Culver did, they saw the issue and they said, ‘some parents will be upset about it, and we should reevaluate.’ Sisters School District did not do that.”
Davis believes the district should cut ties with the Camp.
“I think we need to find a new camp to do Outdoor School with,” he told The Nugget. “I think we’re past the point of well, next year, we know.”
Roth told The Nugget that the school evaluates Outdoor School every year, and “we haven’t done it the same way twice since I’ve been here.”
He urged any parent who has any concern about Outdoor School — or any other matter — to come and talk directly to him.
“Please come in and talk to me face-to-face,” he said.