(Lander, WY) – At the May 17 Fremont County School Board (FCSD) #1 meeting, the decision was made in a 4-3 vote to remove sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, marital status and pregnancy as specifically mentioned protected classes in the district discrimination policy.
At that meeting, over 40 public commenters made their voices heard on the matter, ranging from students, staff, parents, mental health counselors, veterans, folks in support of the change and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Council Members in favor of the protected class removal addressed concerns that protections would still be still in place, citing Wyoming statute and cases such as Bostock v. Clayton County, but those affected by the change were quick to point out the amount of day-to-day bullying that LGBTQ+ students face that goes unreported.
They also expressed concerns that removing sexual orientation and gender identity would lead to more bullying and discrimination.
Students at both Lander Valley High School and Lander Middle School eventually staged walkouts protesting the decision Tuesday afternoon.
County 10 caught up with a few of the LVHS students at their walkout, each of whom were too afraid to give their names for fear of increased bullying, with a few also hesitating to appear in the group picture, fearing blowback from fellow students and parents.
“The school Board is supposed to protect us, not take away our protections. That is completely unfair to veterans, pregnant people, LGBTQ people,” one student stated.
“The School Board wants to say there’s no problem with bullying against LGBTQ students, but it is a very big problem. We need to have School Board representatives that support the student body, and we’re not getting that,” another student claimed.
“Students do not report bad things that happen because they are scared that they will not be treated safely and be in a safe environment afterwards. If you take away our protections to be safe in our schools, then expect us to report it more after taking away our safety, I don’t know you’re expecting from that, but it’s not going to be more reports,” commented a third student to cheers from the group.
It should be noted, at the same May 17 School Board meeting where the decision was made, three FCSD #1 principals were asked to detail the process and outlets for reporting bullying, and the ways they go about addressing it, with each commenting every report of bullying is taken very serious and looked into.
In addition, the following message from Superintendent Dave Barker was posted on the district website on May 20:
“I wanted to address some of the concerns that I’ve seen discussed in various places since the board meeting of May 17 where a change was made to policy AC (non-discrimination) and associated policies that contained the non-discrimination language in them. Changing the language of the policies of non-discrimination does not eliminate any of the legally supported reasons for discrimination claims.
“Court cases have held that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is illegal and other federal legislation makes discrimination based on pregnancy and veteran status illegal in employment decisions. This means the district must address any discrimination that is reported in these areas as well as those listed in the policy.
“I do understand the concern raised during public comments that removing the language could lead to an increase in negative interactions between students. I want to stress the importance of working with building administrators to report any concerns that arise. I have full confidence that our administrators investigate every complaint thoroughly and seriously. In some instances, they hear conflicting accounts of an incident, which makes it difficult to determine exactly what occurred. Even in these cases, alleged perpetrators are made aware of proper interactions as well as possible consequences for violation.
“I want you to know that the administrators and I heard the concerns brought forward by the students, staff, parents, and community members. We will continue to implement proactive programs that emphasize respectful fair treatment of all students in all of our schools. We will continue to investigate all reports that we receive regarding bullying, harassment, discrimination, and unfair treatment. We know that students must feel safe at school for learning to take place.“
While County 10 was not able to attend the LMS walkout, a community rally was held in Centennial Park later that May 24 evening, where a number of students from both schools joined close to 200 community members in protest of the decision, and to increase awareness of bullying within the LGBTQ+ community.
The Centennial Park protest was presented by both the LVHS SPEAK club, Wind River Pride, and organizer Ari Kamil.
Kamil gave any attendees willing the chance to speak, and also read two letters in front of the crowd.
The first letter was written by multiple LVHS students, and detailed the discrimination they face on a daily basis, including but not limited to: threats of mass murder/shooting, being burned alive, rape, and constant harassment.
The full letter can be listened to below (warning, graphic language used throughout):
The second letter was read on behalf of LVHS alum Layla Spoonhunter, who reminded struggling students, “Tonight is only the beginning, and your fierce resilience and unwavering spirit will not only spark change in Fremont County, but also in the State of Wyoming, in our country, and in the world that we call our provider and protector.”
Dozens of others spoke up as well, with topics ranging from the following:
- Children receiving slurs from adults to the point where they don’t even notice anymore
- One LMS student was publicly outed by a fellow student in front of a large group
- A substitute teacher saw a kid wearing a gay pride flag and asked “Why do you support that ugly thing?”
- LGBTQ+ students being constantly barked at (as the protest was being set up, a truck drove by with multiple people barking at protestors; kids informed Kamil this happens on a daily basis)
- A military veteran and self-described “snowflake liberal” stated that he personally sat down with an unnamed Board member to talk about how identifying as LGBTQ+ is important to some students’ identities. The Board Member’s alleged response was, “Well that’s a lame identity”
- “I have 5 more years of school, when is this going to stop?” one LMS student pleaded
- A long time Lander resident spoke about the discrimination a family member faced being so bad they moved out of town, as well as her experience being forced out of school when she was pregnant her senior year (pregnancy was removed from protected classes as well)
- Several students received death threats after returning from the walkouts
- One student referenced a “challenge” where other kids expose the wrists of those who have experienced cutting/self-harm
- Many more
While the mood was somber and upsetting, as the almost two hour protest continued, more and more people started feeling safe enough to speak up.
A few of the students who were too afraid to be photographed at the walkout, were now speaking in front an almost 200 person crowd, opening up about some of the deepest and darkest moments in their lives.
Kids who were trembling with nerves the first time they spoke at the microphone, were later confidently and bravely addressing the crowd second and third times.
Other community members began sharing their own experiences with discrimination and physical/mental abuse, stating that they had never shared these types of stories because there was never a support group this large for them to feel comfortable to do so.
“This makes me hopeful for Lander,” one resident said toward the end of the protest.
The next School Board regular meeting is scheduled for June 7.