By Morgan Hughes
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — Students in the Cheyenne’s McCormick Junior High Gay-Straight Alliance club were told Wednesday afternoon they were no longer allowed to have or wear any LGBTQ paraphernalia on school grounds, including flags, shirts, pins and bracelets.
Students were told they would not even be allowed to wear rainbow colors to school, according to a student and several parents.
This is the latest response by Laramie County School District 1 officials to racist and anti-gay flyers found in the school last month that read “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.
It comes after both Confederate and rainbow flags were present in the school this week, according to a statement released Thursday afternoon by Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Tracey Kinney.
That statement reads, “Yesterday at McCormick Junior High, both Rainbow flags and confederate flags were waved by students, disrupting the educational environment. That action was immediately stopped and the matter looked into. Appropriate remedial action and disciplinary action will be taken.”
It continues, “Because of the provocative use of flags, especially under the current controversy at the local junior high, the District will not allow the display of confederate flags on District property or at District events.” Further, the District will review potential policies or regulations regarding the disruptive use of flags and symbols within the District.”
The statement does not say the district is banning rainbow flags, however.
But principals were informed by the district midday Thursday that rainbow flags were also banned, Kaycee Cook said.
She said she spoke to one of her children’s principals around 11:45 a.m. Thursday and was told rainbow flags were fine, as her child had brought one to school. That child does not attend McCormick.
Cook said the principal called her back at 1:50 p.m. and said she had been informed by the district that all rainbow flags were now banned district-wide. On Wednesday, one day earlier, GSA students at McCormick were told the same.
At around 2:20 p.m. Wednesday, roughly 20-25 students from the GSA club were called out of class and sent to a room where three faculty awaited them, said Ashlynn Kercher, an eighth-grade member of McCormick’s GSA club.
The current GSA sponsor, Michaela Bradshaw, who co-sponsored the club with Cook before Cook was dismissed by Conine after reporting the flyers to Wyoming Equality, was present with two others faculty members. They told the GSA students they would no longer be allowed to have rainbow flags. The students asked if instead they could make pins or bracelets. They were told no, Ashlynn said.
“They told us it was a school distraction, and, ‘You don’t want to make other people feel like you felt when you saw the posters,’” Ashlynn said.
Ashlynn said they were told if they break this new rule, they will be written up for dress code violations, which can result in suspensions over time.
Emily Fowler, a McCormick parent whose daughter is a GSA member, said her daughter told her the same thing.
Fowler said, “I could tell she’d been crying,” when she picked her daughter up from school Wednesday.
“She said, ‘They told us we weren’t allowed to wear anything LGBTQ-related,’” Fowler said her daughter told her Wednesday afternoon.
McCormick Principal Jeff Conine told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle that he was unaware this meeting had happened and he had not made any decision to ban anything.
“It didn’t come from this administration,” Conine said Wednesday afternoon.
Abby Kercher, Ashlynn’s mother, said she’d spoken with the district’s Title IX coordinator, John Balow, who is responsible for the ongoing investigation into the flyers found at the school last month.
Kercher said Balow told her that he and Conine made the decision to ban the clothing and flags together. Conine said he had no knowledge of this.
Sara Burlingame, the Executive Director of Wyoming Equality and Cheyenne Democratic representative in the state Legislature, raised concerns over Balow’s involvement in disciplining students, given that he is the lead investigator in the district’s investigation of the flyers.
“The rush to have the person who’s meant to be investigating now participating in discipline around it seems like a surprising choice,” she said. “And not one that was going to make parents or students feel secure that student safety was being prioritized and that this investigation is independent and well-intentioned.”
Balow declined to comment on the situation and told the Tribune Eagle he would be directing all questions to Superintendent Boyd Brown and Kinney. Brown was attending a conference in Casper both Wednesday and Thursday and did not return calls for comment.
Burlingame also said comparing Confederate flags to gay pride flags was a false equivalency, and that this situation could be used as a teachable moment to convey that. But, she said, her trust in the process has waned.
“I think our trust and faith in the leadership and in the veracity of their claims has been shaken to the point that I don’t see how we go forward,” she said, adding that she believed Conine should be dismissed from the school.
“I think he’s got to go,” she said.
Questions have been raised about whether the banning of either Confederate flags or rainbow or LGBTQ pride clothing and flags is allowed under the First Amendment’s free speech clause.
There have been a number of landmark court cases that address the issue of free speech in schools, but the major case addressing political speech in schools happened in the mid-1960s.
In 1965, a group of junior high school students wanted to wear black armbands to class as a silent protest of the Vietnam war. School officials attempted to stop the action by warning that students with the bands would be suspended. Four students who wore the armbands despite the school’s warnings were suspended. Two of the suspended students sued, and more than three years later the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the students won in a 7-2 vote.
It is considered a significant case because it established that students, though minors, are still protected by the First Amendment. It also created the precedent that for school officials to suppress speech, they must prove the speech “materially and substantially interferes” with the operation of the school.
“Students don’t have quite as many First Amendment rights,” said Wayne Giampietrow, general council for the First Amendment Lawyers Association. “There are some things the school can do to maintain order.”
But the school must prove that the speech being suppressed is infringing on the learning environment, he said.
“As long as the act is not in itself disruptive, everyone – even students – has a First Amendment right to do that,” Giampietrow said of the flags and clothing.
But those legal waters are murky, said local First Amendment attorney Bruce Moats, who represents the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
“If the school can credibly say it’s a distraction, they’re within their rights,” he said.
He said schools have a lot of latitude in determining what is and is not a distraction. He used the example of cases where schools have legally punished students for the use of social media off campus that affected the school day on campus, on which courts have had varied rulings.
In the past, Brown has also invoked the First Amendment when answering questions about students’ ability to have Confederate flags in school, saying those students would be protected. He was not immediately available Thursday for additional comment.