A line snaked out the door of the Fremont County School District 1 board meeting room the evening of May 17.
With every seat in the room occupied, parents, kids and community members lined the walls, some spilling out into a backroom. Men with “Vietnam Vet” stitched into their baseball caps in gold sat near the front.
The crowd had come mainly to voice dissapproval of a proposal to remove five protected classes — gender identity, sexual orientation, veteran status, marital status and pregnancy — from the district’s non-discrimination/harasment policy which pertains to staff, students and their guardians or parents. If passed, the change would leave just age, race, color, religion, national origin, sex and disability as explicitly protected classes.
Proponents described it as a housekeeping task, arguing the five additional classes were protected under existing federal law, making their inclusion in district policy redundant and divisive. Plus, it would align the district with state policy, which doesn’t include the additional classes. The hours of debate that ensued, however, indicated the matter wasn’t so simple. Around 10 p.m., the board voted to remove the five classes.
The vote touched off a potent backlash and propelled a conversation about hostility against, and harassment of, LGBTQ students in schools.
Hundreds protested days later in a Lander park. Local students spoke out about being bullied, and one high school group told WyoFile it plans to file a Title IX complaint. Activists called for concerned parents and community members to run for school board seats to try and overturn the decision.
The school board’s move appears to be unique in Wyoming — though similar discrimination-policy debates have happenned at Eastern Wyoming Community College and Wyoming’s Legislative Service Office — and an expert said it doesn’t follow national trends. Because existing federal law likely still covers the removed classes, the move is seen by many people as a symbolic statement.
“To take out language, to actively remove that language is hostile,” said Sarah Reilley, a parent of two non-binary children. “That’s how our LGBTQ families see it. It was actually an act of hostility and direct ‘We don’t care enough about your kids, or your staff members to continue to protect you.’”
Fremont County School District 1 board member Michelle Escudero suggested adding gender and ethnic identity to the district’s non-discrimination policy on April 16, 2019, according to meeting minutes.
Escudero brought up the issue after attending a National School Board Association conference, where a speaker posited policy is foundational to creating a safe, inclusive school district and including additional protected classes could help.
“We’re not required to list our protected classes fully,” Escudero told WyoFile. “What we’re trying to do is mirror protected classes with the values of our community and also make sure that families, students and staff know what are high priorities for us in terms of building that inclusive and safe environment.”
About two months later, the board brought forward the motion, adding gender identity, veteran status, marital status and pregnancy to the policy. After hearing favorable public comment, according to the meeting minutes, the board narrowly passed the measure, 4-3.
“There was this wash of emotional relief,” Escudero recalled. “I remember staff, students and parents and even a board member too, with tears in their eyes.”
During a recent routine policy update aimed at making small, clarifying changes, board member Scott Jensen proposed reducing the list “back to those that are codified in law.”
“As we were reviewing it, that’s when I started thinking about these additional classes,” Jensen said. He believes “to have the additional language has felt like rather than being inclusive, it’s actually exclusive.”
The main idea behind Jensen’s argument is kids who don’t fit into those protected classes might feel like they’re excluded from the discrimination policy.
Jensen also doesn’t believe the extra protected classes actually helped address students’ complaints, he said, and pointed out that many of the incidents described during the school board meeting occurred after the additional policies were put in place.
He also characterized most of the experiences LGBTQ students spoke about as bullying. “Our bullying policy hasn’t changed and the way that any student or staff member that’s bullied, the way they can get that addressed hasn’t changed,” he said. “It didn’t suddenly become OK to be bullied because of your sexual orientation or any other reason.”
Title IX prohibits federally funded education programs from discriminating on the basis of sex.
In 2020 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County sexual orientation and gender identity fall under federal employment sex-based discrimination protections. The Biden administration directed the Department of Education to apply those protections to Title IX.
Board members in favor of removing the protected classes from the non-discrimination policy cited Bostock, arguing discrimination against LGTBQ students, veterans and pregnant people is prohibited under federal law.
“Everybody has the exact same protections that they did before,” Jensen said.
R. Shep Melnick, a politics professor at Boston College and author of a book on Title IX, said by relying on federal law to protect students, the district may have inadvertently given the federal government more power to adjudicate cases dealing with gender identity and sexual orientation. “There’s a lot of discretion in how you interpret these things,” Melnick said. “I’d think they’d want the first crack at it.”
In a message posted to the Fremont County School District #1 website on May 20, Superintendent Dave Barker wrote, “Changing the language of the policies of non-discrimination does not eliminate any of the legally supported reasons for discrimination claims.”
But proponents of listing protections for gender identity and sexual orientation argue ambiguity in federal law persists, plus students and parents might not be aware of Supreme Court case nuances.
The Bostock case also doesn’t provide guidelines for how gender identity protections apply to issues involving school bathrooms or sports, Melnick pointed out.
Brad Neuendorf, principal at Lander Valley High School, said listing the protections was helpful when it came to spreading awareness. “So for me, where I found it helpful was to make sure that the district was supportive in understanding our students’ rights to the access in which they are guaranteed and have in our building.”
The May 17 school board meeting began amicably with a joke or two about leaving pitchforks and explosives at home. Many who spoke told the school board it “had a hard job,” and the members in turn nodded attentively.
But as public testimony stretched on for hours, the sense of decorum began to fray.
A clinical social worker from Fremont Counseling tried to read from a report about the 200 minors the center worked with, but was stopped at the two-minute speaking limit.
“So you don’t care about the 200 people we assess?” Michael Holland, the social worker, asked.
The board asked the next person in line to speak, so a young woman took Holland’s report and continued reading. “Every three days for the past three months, we have met with a youth who is considering suicide.” The woman began crying as she read about kids who said they experienced constant bullying and felt unwanted by their community. Removing the language would hurt those children more, the report concluded.
Julia Fairbank, a primary care physician assistant, spoke in favor of keeping the protected classes, noting “when students or staff don’t feel protected in their schools, there can be a ripple-down effect to me and my colleagues in the healthcare field. The physical and psychological stressors inflicted through discrimination can be vast and deep.”
Willow Wells, a student at LVHS, also spoke as tears streamed down their face. “I’m not angry,” Wells said. “I’m tired of having to fight just to exist the moment I walk into school every morning. I’m tired of being called slurs in the hallway.”
”You say you want youth to speak, we’re here, we’re speaking, but the real question is will you listen?,” Wells asked.
Raucous applause broke out after Wells spoke.
A small number of people spoke in favor of removing the protected classes. Carly Schultz said more labels only create more division.
Philip Strong, pastor at Grace Reformed Fellowship, said sexual orientation and gender identity are not objective, and “your policy states this: if a person feels that they’ve been discriminated against, they are to be taken seriously. The problem with this is we are playing into a mindset, and not to objective reality.”
“Make no mistake, this is a political body,” noted Chairman Jared Kail. “What we do is we make policy, we set policy. The mistake people often make is that this is not a partisan board. We don’t as run Democrats, we don’t run as Republicans. We just run as community members. But that does not mean that we’re removed from politics for setting policy. And in this case, it is up to us to set policy.”
The board should look to national legislators and other education administrations that have not included the language in their statutes, he said. He voted in favor of removing the classifications.
By the time the meeting dispersed, the sun was long gone, tears had been shed and voices raised and one father had been kicked out for shouting that he almost lost his son to suicide after the board closed public comment.
Hundreds gathered in Centennial Park on Tuesday night to protest the school board’s decision to remove the five protected classes from district policy. The LVHS Speak Club organized the protest with help from Wind River Pride organizer Ari Kamil.
Kamil read from an eight-page student-created document listing instances of harassment.
Students described being routinely threatened with rape and murder and one instance when a student “was groped and assaulted, in order to ‘prove’ they are female.”
A student described skateboarding and being followed, writing another student “constantly told me that I should kill myself because im not worth it, and that everytime i cut was a punishment because i didnt deserve life.” [sic]
Students spoke about “wrist reveals,” when kids pulled up their peers’ sleeves to expose instances of self harm and mocked them.
“It kind of feels like every time we report we’re not heard,” said Felanie, an LVHS student at the protest who asked only to be identified by their first name.
Quinn Larremore, another protest attendee who attended LVHS four years ago, recalled frequent harassment after coming out as transgender. “I thought our schools were doing so much better and then I heard about that and I just got so frustrated I had to come.”
Parents Stefani Farris and Tim Hudson said they attended the protest because “we have a middle school son who comes home and frequently tells us some of these stories,” Hudson said.
“I think that the kids need to know that they’re supported. That people have their back,” Farris chimed in.
State Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander) and Rep. Karlee Provenza (D-Laramie) attended. “These kids need to have a safe place to go to school, there have to be consequences of the bullying that they are experiencing,” Case said after the protest.
Wells, one of the protest organizers, said it felt amazing to witness the support. “I really didn’t think that much was there.”
A continuing battle
Two students at Lander Valley High School told WyoFile the Speak Club plans to file a Title IX complaint.
Protesters encouraged community members to stay engaged, run for school board seats in the coming election and vote.
Neuendorf, LVHS principal, said while the high school already takes student complaints very seriously, it plans to improve its communication with students about the consequences perpetrators face. If a student reports an incident and then sees the student who they alleged bullied or harassed them in school the next day, they’re going to “assume nothing happened.”
While he understands the assumption, “I don’t think it’s fair. And I don’t think it’s an accurate assumption. And so we’re going to try to minimize some of that with better communication back to the reporting party in where we’re at and what’s going on,” Neuendorf said. In the last week, he’s seen an uptick in reports. Neuendorf did not provide an exact number but said there were “fewer than five.”
Back at Centennial Park, the last few students milled as the crowd of hundreds slowly dispersed. Some danced and laughed, pride flags draped around their shoulders like capes.
“I want to spread my story and everybody else’s stories,” Wells said as pop music blared over a loudspeaker. “Because this isn’t a small thing. And this isn’t just one small burst. We’re in it for the long run.”
If you or someone you know needs to talk, you can call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “WYO” to 741-741.
CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to reflect Chairman Jared Kail’s full quote about the school board being a non-partisan body. -Ed.