Editor's Note: As part of our efforts to educate the Lake Oswego community about race and racism, Respond to Racism is launching a multi-platform storytelling campaign focused on the experiences of people of color called #notanisolatedincident. This project will utilize everything from personal essays to interviews to photos of graffiti and social media screenshots to capture the pervasiveness of racist incidents in this town. Some stories may be familiar because they made the news at some point, but more often than not, these incidents go unreported, giving those who seek to discredit any anti-racist efforts the excuse to pretend LO's racism doesn't exist, or, as is often the case, dismiss any story that makes headlines as an "isolated incident." Our hope is to build such a large database of stories, photos, interviews, and any other form of effective storytelling that we can move beyond the denial and actually make the changes that ensure all members of our community have the opportunity to thrive. If you are interested in submitting your own stories, please reach out to us via direct message on either Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
For this installment, I sat down with former LO student and recent high school graduate Alana Talley and her mother Catrina Brown to talk about Talley's time in Lake Oswego. Talley shared some frankly heartbreaking stories about dealing with not just constant racial abuse, but also the struggles that come with having epilepsy on top of that. Read more below:
When Alana Talley moved to Lake Oswego with her mother at the age of nine, she thought it would be a nice place to go to school and make new friends. Talley enjoyed math and her grandmother, who was already living in LO, thought the community’s highly regarded schools would be great for honing Talley’s thirst for education.
However, nine years later, Talley sums up her time in LO with one simple word: “Hell.”
“It was hard,” she says. “I thought of suicide sometimes. Nobody really gave a shit about me, so I didn’t really think it mattered.”
After growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, LO’s lack of diversity was already a major culture shock for Talley. Furthermore, she says her peers didn’t waste any time picking on her, not just for the color of her skin, but also for her epilepsy.
Talley recalls that this harassment included being called, among other things, a “witch” and a “nigger” a few times. She also remembers being passed a note calling her mother a “Fat, ugly stripper.” All the while, as is unfortunately too familiar to many past and present LO students, Talley says the teachers mostly ignored this harassment, or worse, punished her.
Talley maintains, “I got put in timeout for doing nothing. The kids would push me around and say that I did it.”
This series of events came to a head during Talley’s sophomore year when she attempted suicide by trying to jump off a 30-foot stairway banister at Lake Oswego High School. A group of girls she thought were her friends accused her of stealing from the student store. Fed up, Talley hung her legs over the banister, preparing to jump. What stopped her were the actions of a fellow student who grabbed her and insisted that she didn’t really want to go through with it.
As a result of this and the preceding incidents, Talley’s mother, Catrina Brown, decided to move her daughter to a new school. While a change of environment was necessary, Brown believes that LO’s mismanagement of Talley’s epilepsy ultimately set her up for more issues even after she left the district.
“My issue was that my daughter would come home with stories about how she was treated at the school by the teachers,” says Brown. “I believe the first seizure my daughter experienced at Forest Hills Elementary, I think that labeled her as well as targeted her for abuse, not only from her peers, but also from the teacher-student standpoint.”
Brown recalls a litany of additional incidents over the years that eventually set the stage for her daughter’s attempted suicide. In one case, the student who passed Talley the note calling her mother a “stripper” gave Talley a cookie with hot sauce on it. This student also accused Talley of calling him a homophobic slur. However, when Brown reached out to the student’s mother to further investigate, she found that it was he who in fact called her daughter the slur. To add insult to injury, Brown says Talley’s teacher told her that Talley was called the slur because she liked to chase boys. This treatment would become a recurring theme throughout her time at Forest Hills, Lake Oswego Junior High, and for two years at Lake Oswego High.
That’s to say nothing of other incidents, such as Talley’s first trip to outdoor school, where a teacher refused to let her go to the bathroom and, as a result, she ended up urinating on herself. Brown believes this incident first triggered her daughter’s suicidal thoughts.
Fast forward to the days following Talley’s suicide attempt at LO high school. Brown and Talley’s grandparents decided to hire a lawyer to begin legal action. In response, the LO School District conducted an evaluation of Talley and based on the diagnosis, referred to Heron Creek, an Oregon City school for students with special needs and behavioral problems. At the time, Brown didn’t realize that Heron Creek’s emphasis was on students with behavioral problems rather than special needs. As a result, Talley found herself in another situation where she was bullied relentlessly.
Determined to get out of LO for good at that point, the family then moved to East Portland and enrolled Talley at Centennial High School. The environment proved to be too big and Talley suffered panic attacks. In response, she was once again referred to a smaller school called Serendipity. Unfortunately, like at Heron Creek, Talley’s epilepsy was conflated with other students’ behavioral problems at Serendipity, which resulted in tragic consequences.
“I got punched in the back of my head and suffered a pretty bad concussion,” says Talley. “Thankfully, my brain wasn’t bleeding but it was awfully bruised. Things are much harder now. It’s hard for me to remember things. Sometimes my vision is messed up and my eyes hurt. I forget things that I said. I have really bad headaches.”
While Talley still struggles with some of the after effects of the attack, the incident led to her placement in Centennial Park School, which finally seemed like the right fit. She made friends, met her boyfriend, and graduated in the summer of 2018. No one was happier to see her daughter finally thriving than Brown.
“The environment here is a lot more friendly,” she says. “It’s less judgemental. It’s comfortable. My biggest desire was that I could continue to bring Alana up in an environment where she felt safe, where she felt accepted, and where she was being treated fairly.”
Talley was even tapped to give a graduation speech. “I was pretty scared, but it was nice to talk about what I went through,” she says. “I actually got a standing ovation.”
Going forward, Talley says she’d like to pursue an interest in cooking and own a food cart. Eventually, she’d also like to run an afterschool program for children with special needs to ensure others don’t go through the struggles she went through. Perhaps nothing would be more poetic.