CHEYENNE — The leaflets distributed by students at a junior high school told pre-teens to “Join the KKK” and that “It’s not OK to be gay.”
In the capital of the state known for the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, school officials have worked to respond to the spring incident. They’re holding community meetings and plan to hire a “diversity and cultural awareness” counselor while providing additional employee training.
“We’ve got a pretty good plan to try to work on all of that,” said Boyd Brown, superintendent of Laramie County School District No. 1.
Others aren’t so confident the Cheyenne school district is up to the challenge. The new approach to student bullying and harassment sounds good, but “only time will tell if it’s upheld,” parent Abby Kercher said.
A group of McCormick Junior High School students handed out the flyers and taped them up in hallways March 26, other students and teachers said. Brown has declined to say how many students were involved or whether any were punished, though Kercher said one eighth grader was suspended.
The district replaced the school’s principal weeks after the incident.
Parents and students report a long history of anti-gay and racist harassment at McCormick that continued through the rest of the school year. Some students kept violating a ban on Confederate flags by displaying the images on their computers, said Kercher’s daughter, 14-year-old Ashlynn Kercher.
“They just took it down a notch,” Ashlynn said.
A summary of a school district investigation confirms bullying and harassment directed at — but also occurring between — minority, LGBTQ and disabled students at McCormick. Yet many details about the bullying and the school’s response remain unknown.
School officials refuse to release a full report on the investigation, saying that doing so would violate the Family and Educational Rights Privacy Act. The Associated Press has joined the Wyoming Tribune Eagle newspaper and other news media in a lawsuit seeking the report’s release under Wyoming’s public records laws.
The fliers came as not too surprising to parent Fred Gallop after other McCormick students bullied his 13-year-old daughter with a racial epithet twice during the recent school year.
“It was more like, ‘We’re starting to see a trend here,’” Gallop said.
Ashlynn Kercher said other students bullied her for having a girlfriend.
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“If we held hands, a bunch of kids would start making fun of us, pointing and laughing” and using anti-gay slurs, Kercher said.
LGBTQ advocates learned about the flyers from substitute teacher and Gay-Straight Alliance co-sponsor Kaycee Cook. According to Cook, McCormick Principal Jeff Conine’s first reaction was to tell her she was no longer welcome to teach at McCormick.
Cook said she was reinstated weeks later.
Conine left his job soon after, though district officials have declined to say why. Brown said confidentiality laws prevent him from answering any questions about Cook or Conine.
Conine doesn’t have a listed phone number and couldn’t be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, school officials traumatized some student Gay-Straight Alliance members by calling them out of class for questioning in front of police officers about the flyers, Kercher said.
“They felt really intimidated. Kids were crying,” Abby Kercher said. “These were the victims. You don’t need to have police officers in there. It was just handled wrong.”
Brown acknowledged officers “probably shouldn’t have” been present at those meetings.
School officials for a time shortly after the incident told students neither Confederate flags nor rainbow pride flags and clothing worn in support of LGBTQ rights were appropriate. The district soon said rainbow flags and clothing were OK.
“At the time, we had two opposing sides that were kind of escalating the situation,” Brown said.
The episode showed that the Cheyenne school district administration “doesn’t know how to handle not just one troubled kid but systemic racism and homophobia,” said Sara Burlingame, executive director of Cheyenne-based Wyoming Equality.
But Cook, who went to junior high school with Shepard, said she’s optimistic the school’s new principal, Justin Conroy, will help fix the problems. An administrator in the Rapid City, South Dakota, school district, Conroy is scheduled to begin his new job in late July; he didn’t return a phone message seeking comment.
“A lot of it has to do with what we’re teaching our children,” Cook said. “If we’re teaching our children to be exclusive and have that mentality, it will always be that way.”