School Bans Pride Flags, 50 Miles From Where Matt Shepard Was Killed

Rainbow flag

Gay-Straight Alliance members at a Wyoming junior high school are being told not to display Pride flags or any other LGBTQ-themed items, with the rationale that such items would be as disruptive as the racist and homophobic literature recently distributed at the school.

GSA participants at McCormick Junior High School in Cheyenne received the directive Wednesday from faculty members, apparently at the behest of administrators from Laramie County School District 1, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports.

About 20 to 25 GSA students were called out of class to hear the message from a sponsor of the group and two other faculty members. The adults told the students they could not have rainbow flags; the school’s principal had given the same order a few weeks ago, after Confederate flags had been seen at McCormick. When students asked if bracelets or pins with rainbow colors or other LGBTQ imagery were acceptable, they were told no. They were also told not to wear rainbow-colored clothing.

“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’” with racist and anti-LGBTQ slogans, eighth-grader Ashlynn Kercher told the Tribune Eagle. Other students and their parents corroborated her account.

Those posters and fliers, which appeared at McCormick late last month, contained messages including “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.” “The confederate kid club” was in parentheses at the bottom. Small Confederate flags were also distributed at the school.

A substitute teacher and GSA cosponsor, Kaycee Cook, was barred from the school by its principal, Jeff Conine, after she reported the hateful literature. She is still waiting to hear whether she will be reinstated, having received conflicting information from various district officials. The latest incident at the school is “infuriating,” she told The Advocate.

“This is just further bullying and discrimination. … I don’t even know how the Pride flag can be equated to racist and homophobic speech,” she said.

It’s unclear who was responsible for the directive against LGBTQ-themed items. Abby Kercher, Ashlynn’s mother, told the Tribune Eagle that the district’s Title IX coordinator, John Balow, said he and Conine had come up with the policy together. But Conine told the paper he had no knowledge of it, while Balow declined to comment, directing all questions to Superintendent Boyd Brown, who was away at a conference and did not return the Tribune Eagle’s calls. 

Tracey Kinney, the district’s assistant superintendent of instruction, did release a statement to the paper. “[Wednesday] at McCormick Junior High, both Rainbow flags and confederate flags were waved by students, disrupting the educational environment,” it read. “That action was immediately stopped and the matter looked into. Appropriate remedial action and disciplinary action will be taken. … 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.” It did not specifically say that Pride flags were banned, though.

Despite the name, Laramie County does not include the city of Laramie, site of one of the nation's most infamous antigay hate crimes, the fatal attack on gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998. The city of Laramie is about 50 miles from Cheyenne, in neighboring Albany County.

Shepard's murder still looms large when there is any mention of LGBTQ issues in Wyoming. But Cook, while outraged by the treatment of McCormick GSA members, emphasized that the LGBTQ community does have allies in Wyoming and that the whole state should not be judged by the intolerant actions of some residents. In addition to cosponsoring the McCormick GSA, she runs a county-wide GSA outside the school, and she encounters many people who share her values. “This state is full of amazing people who are supportive and inclusive,” she told The Advocate. “The LGBTQ community and allies need to see there are people doing the right thing.”

UPDATE: Wyoming Public Radio did eventually reach Brown, who said there was no ban on Pride flags or other LGBTQ items, and he promised to look into how and why the information was delivered to students. 

"We have no desire to ban rainbow flags or any of those things," he told WPR. "It felt like we weren't establishing consequences for anyone the other day. Just asking them to cooperate so that we didn't have a situation that disrupted the school." He said students won't be punished for wearing or displaying Pride items.

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