By Morgan Hughes
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — Community members are asking for a handful of things from the Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees in response to racist and anti-gay flyers found in a Cheyenne junior high last month.
Flyers reading “it’s great to be straight it’s not OK to be gay,” “black lives only matter because if it weren’t for them who would pick our cotton,” and “Join the KKK,” with “the confederate kid club” in parentheses beneath it were taped to walls and passed out to targeted students at Cheyenne’s McCormick Junior High on March 26.
It was the so-far climax of months-long bullying endured by students in the school’s Gay Straight Alliance club, according to a GSA student and a teacher in the school. The flyers targeted LGBTQ and black students specifically, and some are concerned the flyers signal pervasive discrimination at the school.
Since learning about the flyers, community leaders have planned three now-past public meetings to discuss how to move forward in the shadow of the incident. Through those meetings, community representatives narrowed down a list of requests for the school board, which were repeated by numerous people during the public comment portion of Monday’s board meeting.
Those requests include having a special meeting of the Board of Trustees, with a question-and-answer segment to discuss the incident and its ramifications specifically; launching an independent investigation into the incident and to determine whether bullying and discrimination are pervasive in McCormick; offering a culturally competent mental health professional to students at McCormick; and offering district-wide cultural competency trainings for faculty and staff.
Before public comment began, LCSD1 Superintendent Boyd Brown read a statement clarifying district opposition to white supremacy “or other hate mongering ideology.” The statement reads, “We oppose any speech or behavior that threatens our students and their ability to learn. That would include hate speech, racism, homophobia, or any bullying or harassment for any reason.”
It continues, “Although the community may disagree on what is hate speech or harassment within our schools, we will make that decision based on our educational judgement and dedication to maintain a safe, supportive, civil culture in our schools.”
It is a response to calls from the public to issue a statement denouncing white supremacy after Brown declined to do so at two public meetings, citing the need for board approval.
Benjamin Watson, pastor of Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, began the public comment section and was first to ask for cultural competency trainings and a third-party independent investigation of the March incident. He said the lack of cultural representation in the district as a whole, but particularly in the investigation, is a problem.
“You’re asking me, a black man, and our children to trust a system that was developed by systemic and institutional racism,” he said. “We need an independent investigation that is representative of all involved and that has no ties to McCormick or the school district, past or present.”
Watson said this would be the only way for the public to trust the results of the investigation.
The current investigation is being handled by LCSD1 Title IX coordinator John Balow and two former district administrators. LCSD1 has until May 7 to complete the investigation. The policy dictates any Title IV complaint investigation should take no more than 30 calendar days, “absent extenuating circumstances.”
The district first got involved in the incident March 29, two days after the flyers were first found. District Superintendent Boyd Brown issued a statement saying the district was investigation the incident. He also referenced the investigation at a public meeting April 3, but because April 1-5 was LCSD1’s spring break, Brown said the official investigation did not begin until April 8.
Still, the investigation is taking longer than district officials predicted. During the April 3 public meeting, Brown said he hoped the investigation would be complete by the end of the following week, which would have been April 12. Board chair Marguerite Herman said she hoped to have the investigation in her hands by April 15, the day of April’s only Board of Trustees meeting.
But as of Monday, the investigation is still ongoing, Brown said.
As for what could be shared with the public, Brown said he may be able to share some generalities from the investigation, but the actual details are confidential.
The Rev. Hannah Roberts Villnave, who leads the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne, also spoke at the meeting Monday. She asked the board for a special meeting to discuss only the McCormick flyers as well as a district-wide professional development day to teach cultural competency.
Other community members echoed these requests, including church leaders, former LCSD1 faculty and current students.
Ashlynn Kercher, an eighth-grader at McCormick, said she felt unsupported by the school, especially after McCormick GSA co-sponsor and substitute teacher Kaycee Cook was dismissed from the school after reporting the flyers to Wyoming Equality.
Cook was informed via email by McCormick principal Jeff Conine that she was no longer welcome as a substitute at the school, and would only be able to visit her husband, a full-time teacher at McCormick, when students were not present.
“Even those who protect and support us are not protected,” Ashlynn said.
Cook’s employment has been a lingering question since she was dismissed from the school nearly three weeks ago. She has not yet been reinstated to her substitute position at McCormick and likely will not be until the investigation is complete, Brown said.
In the past, Brown said the only thing keeping Cook from being reinstated was whether she wanted it or not.
But when asked Monday, Brown told the Tribune Eagle that the district would wait until the investigation concludes to make a decision about Cook’s future in the district.
Cook was not told any of this. She told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle on Monday morning that district officials had not responded to repeated requests for information regarding her substitute position at the school. She said she was told the investigation had nothing to do with her dismissal from McCormick. Still, Brown said a decision about Cook’s reinstatement at McCormick would have to wait until the investigation is finished.
So far, that investigation has identified one student responsible for the flyers. That student will likely face some out of school suspension and counseling, Brown said at the April 3 meeting.