In the dim, carpeted room at the top of the hill between Foster and Glenn roads in Casper, the nine trustees of the Natrona County School District board sat one Monday evening in a horseshoe facing rows of folding seats, each of them occupied by a parent, a student, a teacher, a counselor, a politician.
There were a few items on the agenda -- the usual personnel and district bills reports, plus an update on school performance ratings, the first since COVID-19 hit Wyoming more than two years ago.
But most of the people in the crowd hadn’t come to talk about those things. One by one, they walked to a table set in front of the school board members, sat down, pressed the button on the microphone until its light turned green, and spoke.
“What these books do is make our children vulnerable to trafficking, to abuse,” one said. “Are we setting up children to be victimized by this kind of material?”
People are also reading…
“I would rather have prayer in school than pornography,” said another.
A high school student with dyed red hair, wearing earrings, sat at the table and opened his laptop. His mother, accompanying him to the school board meeting for the first time, watched from a seat in the crowd.
“I am exhausted by the trivialness of the conversation over books,” he said.
“But it has never been about the books, has it?”
They’d come to talk about two books that a committee -- against the wishes of some community members -- had decided last month to keep in one of the district’s high school libraries. There's “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel that explores gender identity and sexuality, and “Trans Bodies, Trans Selves,” a resource guide for transgender individuals. They're both available at Kelly Walsh High School, although they're not used as part of any curricula. They've been called pornographic by some people for their depictions of sexuality. By the time the committee met to make a decision on whether or not to keep the books, "Gender Queer" had been checked out 16 times since 2019, when it came into the library. "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves," which had been in the library since 2017, had been checked out twice.
It’s been nearly a year since people started coming to Natrona County school board meetings to talk about the books, following the seasons since spring 2020 that had each brought their own trial: the COVID-19 pandemic first, then the Black Lives Matter protests, the presidential elections, the Jan. 6 insurrection. In the wake of these upheavals, what people in Natrona County had once known as daily life and the things they had taken for granted -- their community, their neighbors, the schools where their children go to learn -- had come under scrutiny.
These books -- and others -- have become a focus not only for people in Natrona County but for communities across the nation. They're the crest of a cultural crisis, a tidal wave of questioning and outrage in the U.S. over how and what kids are being taught in schools, over masking and critical race theory and social-emotional learning and “gender ideology.” And in a bigger sense, they point to a questioning of what people think is right and wrong, what they believe to be fundamental truths in society at large. School board elections have become the fulcrum of those discussions; in Natrona County, 15 candidates are competing for four open seats.
The current school board members sat in silence at the meeting and listened as each person spoke for their allotted three minutes. Some took notes. Some nodded their heads. Some looked at each speaker with concentration.
Two of them are running again for school board. There’s Debbie McCullar, a two-term school board trustee going for her third. She’s a Casper native and retired English teacher who spent her career reading and grading hundreds of papers written by her students. She's conservative, and she feels the community is spending too much time talking about gender when there are other problems that need fixing. There’s student absenteeism and behavior problems. There’s a worsening educator shortage. But as a general rule, she doesn't believe in banning books; it's her responsibility to provide for every student, and she thinks there are some who might need that literature.
There’s Kianna Smith, the youngest school board trustee, also a Casper native, a self-described politics and education nerd running this year for her second term. Meetings were nearly empty four years ago when she joined the board. But now, the room at the top of the hill is a place where you can go to see the upwelling of change here and elsewhere. The chairs are often full. A line of people waiting for their turn to speak sometimes curves around the back wall. Police officers stand by, ready to intervene. In Kianna's mind, things probably won't go back to the way they were before.
The student with the red hair and earrings continued to speak. "I have never read 'Gender Queer,’" he said, "nor have I ever been taught what homosexuality is in my 14 years of public schools, and I am still gay.”
His name is Kelby Eisenman. He's an artist and a senior at Natrona County High School.
One evening back in July, Kelby was at Casper College for an education meeting organized by the governor's office. Two other seniors at the same high school, Alexis Worthen and Eralys Wallace, were there too.
They’d come to represent Natrona Pride, their school’s queer advocacy group. The three of them sat at a round table at the very front of the room. They were the only students there. Alexis, the group's president, stood to make introductions: "We're here to speak up for the students of Casper, Wyoming, who are underrepresented and need their voices heard tonight," she said.
There are a lot of things that the three students like about their school. They like the robust arts programs. They like the international baccalaureate and financial literacy classes. They admire how involved and dedicated educators are to their lives and their success. But they think it could offer more diversity training for teachers, more safe spaces for students, more sexual health education.
“It would be very cool to see this state recognize queerness,” Kelby said. “Like, at all.”
He let out an exasperated laugh.
The three students have gone to a lot of school board meetings to speak against getting rid of the books. They think it's important to have representation and resources for LGBTQ students in the schools.
Their stance seems to indicate some of the dissonance in Wyoming between younger generations and older ones over what they hold to be true, what they believe is right when it comes to gender identity and sexuality, where and when and what kind of discourse on these subjects is permissible.
There’s the University of Wyoming sorority that recently became the first in the school’s history -- against the wishes of some parents -- to accept a transgender house member.
There’s the time at the latest University of Wyoming commencement ceremony when students booed U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis for saying that “even fundamental scientific truths, such as the existence of two sexes, male and female, are subject to challenge these days.”
In the winter and early spring, when lawmakers considered a bill to bar transgender women from competing on female school sports teams, several students came to the capitol to speak against it.
Most of the people who have spoken in opposition to the books in Natrona County are parents; many of those who have spoken in favor of keeping them are students.
"We're having a big issue of empathy in our schools and in our communities," one teacher at a back table said. She thinks schools should teach students more about social and restorative justice, empathy and cultural awareness.
“Social justice, to teach empathy, is counterintuitive to me,” a mom objected. “Social justice implies a lot of varying things that I don't feel very young children would attach to empathy.”
And teaching kids about emotions, the mom said, isn’t the purpose of school. “It’s a parental purpose.”
When it comes to the books, some say it's also an exclusive parental purpose to teach kids about gender, about sexuality, that schools have gone too far in taking the reins and raising their children. They want to reinstate stronger parental control over schools. They want to go "back to basics," a reiterated slogan around education these days that demands plain arithmetic, reading, history; that points generally to curricula culled of "confusing ideology," of education on gender or sexuality, of teachings that examine the historical roots of oppressors and the oppressed in this country, and that they worry will teach kids a victim mentality. They don’t want schools to raise their kids.
But then some people ask what should be done about kids who don’t have adults who will be there for them. And how do you teach a child who is struggling mentally, who is hungry, who feels unsafe? Shouldn't schools do their best to try and represent all students?
“I would like to respectfully disagree,” another teacher said, responding to the mom at the education meeting. She wishes all students came from homes where they are supported, where parents would take up the responsibility to teach kids what they need to know to be successful members of society. “But the reality is, most are not.”
“We are losing our humanity and our ability to connect with each other.”
Mary Schmidt, a member of Natrona’s Moms for Liberty group and a school board candidate, sat at a table adjacent to the three Natrona County High School students.
She was in the audience when Kelby spoke at the last school board meeting. In fact, Mary has been going to meetings pretty regularly since the pandemic; she and other parents wanted to get rid of masking in schools, and when the district stopped requiring masks, they went after social-emotional learning, curricula purportedly tied to critical race theory and the books. It's possible for parents to opt-out of letting their kids check out books from the school libraries, but she and others think the books are below the decency of the district. She combed through thousands of book titles to find the ones she wanted out. Along with "Gender Queer" and "Trans Bodies, Trans Selves," there are a number of others she has on her list: “Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out,” by Susan Kuklin. “Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens,” by Kathy Belge, Marke Bieschke and Christian Robinson. “People Kill People,” by Ellen Hopkins.
Two other members of Moms for Liberty, Renea Redding and Jenifer Hopkins, are running alongside Mary for school board. The three of them show up to meetings and take to the mic for public comment. They've talked to legislators. They gave a presentation about social-emotional learning to interim state superintendent Brian Schroeder in his office in Cheyenne.
One day last month, the three moms gathered around a table at the east side City Brew Coffee. Their kids sat at a table nearby, entertaining themselves. Mary set a manila folder full of documents and a book called "Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters" on the table. Of the three, she's the one who talks the most:
“Parents are sick of the national attention on school boards,” she said.
The school board needs to move away from the national picture, away from the federal government. It needs to come back to the local parents and local community.
“No offense, but we’re rejecting you, the media,” she continued. “We’re rejecting the U.S. Senate, the U.S. House, the President. We’re rejecting you for having control over us.”
Whether favorable or unfavorable to Mary’s aims, national attention on school boards seems unlikely to abate in the political and social climate of the country right now. The same conversations run from the national to the local. In Wyoming, there's interim state superintendent Schroeder, who raised a furor over a new federal funding requirement meant to protect LGBTQ students’ access to school meals and labeled it as part of an “ever-relentless agenda of social engineering.”
There’s the Wyoming Republican Party, which sent out an email in September reminding people to pay attention to school board races and included a link to suggested questions for candidates, some of which aired the same anxieties: “Do you believe sex education should be taught in schools?” “Do you support the Wyoming Education Association’s position of gender identity?” “Do you believe that biological males should be allowed to participate in girls sports and use female restrooms, dressing rooms, and showers?”
There’s Jeanette Ward, the Republican nominee for House District 57 and a regular at Natrona County's school board meetings. She's Christian. She's conservative. She calls herself a "refugee" from the "fascist" state of Illinois. She's come to the school board to talk against masking and against the abortion clinic opening in Casper and against these books. She writes her priorities for school board in all caps on her Facebook page: NO PORN IN SCHOOL. NO GROOMING OF MINORS. RESPECT PARENTS. PROTECT CHILDREN. BACK TO BASICS. She’s given her endorsement to the three Moms for Liberty candidates for Natrona County’s school board.
“Since when is the parent pushed out?” Renea asked, speaking over the music and morning-rush at City Brew Coffee.
“The assumption is we’re always wrong, and we have to prove ourselves,” Mary said.
"We shouldn't be demonized because we're asking questions, because we're bringing it up."
Their kids, some of whom are home-schooled, were getting restless. The coffee machines screamed. At one point in the conversation, Renea suddenly spoke up. “I’m going to answer your question,” she said. “You said, ‘Why do you think people are becoming more concerned?'”
She lifted her arms and gestured to the group. “Because of moms like this.”
Concern is personified in the 15 school board candidates sitting in a line that stretched all the way across the basement room of the Natrona County Library one Wednesday evening at a time when most people would be eating dinner. Folded paper name tags sat in front of each one of them. About 50 people filled the room to listen.
Of course, the anxiety over books, social-emotional learning, critical race theory, government overreach and "gender ideology” aren't the only reasons Natrona County's school board race is crowded this year. You could take up any number of things out of the grab bag of imminent challenges and aspirations that loom over Wyoming's public education system. Some want to build up trade schools. Some want to maintain the diversity of school options in the district. Mental health among students and staff has long been a worry, especially since the pandemic. Natrona County has seen some uptick in student behavioral problems. Hiring and keeping staff has become more and more difficult. Even though the district has made some progress, the majority of its schools still didn't meet state performance standards in the 2021-2022 school year.
But in a forum where the audience was asked not to clap following candidates’ responses, Renea and Mary, who touched on some of the more controversial topics, nevertheless elicited small lapses in decorum.
“Since when did we as a society expect schools to raise our children?” Renea asked the audience.
“Yes, amen!” a man in the crowd cheered. Some people clapped.
Alexis, the Natrona County High School senior and president of Natrona Pride, listened from the second row.
She used to spend time with Mary and Jenifer's families and even lived next door to Jenifer for about 15 years. She remembers playing "Just Dance" with her kids and talking with them after school through the fence dividing their homes. But then Alexis and her family moved, and the next time she started seeing Jenifer and Mary regularly again was at the school board meetings, on different sides of a controversial topic.
One afternoon recently, Alexis sat in a velvet lounge chair at the back of the downtown Metro Coffee Company with a copy of "Gender Queer" in her hands. She distractedly flipped through it.
She finds the book refreshingly honest. She was once home-schooled, and so was the author; she had experienced similar struggles learning how to fit in with other people. She liked that the book doesn’t just focus on the struggles of being queer; it also shares some of the joys, the facets of daily life as a queer person.
“And yes, that involves sexual conversations,” she added. “Congratulations, it's life.”
Even though the two books that have been under question are LGBTQ-related, the three moms running as a unit for school board have said before that their aim to get them out of the district doesn't have anything to do with targeting the LGBTQ community specifically. It's just about having literature in the school that isn't appropriate for students, they’ve said.
Regardless of the truth of the matter, this whole controversy has made Alexis question what people in the community think about people like her, people who have spoken in favor of keeping the books. Do they really believe she's been radicalized? She'll be graduating soon. She spends time worrying over her ACT score, whether she has any missing assignments in her IB environmental science class. She watches "The Great British Bake Off" with her family on Sundays. She works a part-time job.
"I'm just a normal, 17-year-old girl," she said.
School had just let out. The café was full of students. A pink-colored iced drink stood on the table in front of her, still mostly full.