A substitute teacher who cosponsors the Gay-Straight Alliance at McCormick Junior High School in Cheyenne, Wyo., was barred from the school after she reported that homophobic and racist literature was being circulated by a student group calling itself "the confederate kid club."
Now it looks like she'll be reinstated -- but she and her allies still worry about school administrators' commitment to protecting LGBTQ youth and students of color.
Kaycee Cook, who subs at other schools in the district but primarily at McCormick, was shown the literature when she arrived at the school March 27. The fliers featured the phrases "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. The material had been handed out to some students and taped to walls, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports.
"I was in hopes that no children had seen the fliers," Cook told The Advocate this week. But in the GSA meeting that day, several students mentioned them and said that there had been a lot of harassment at the school in the previous couple of weeks, with other students using homophobic slurs and passing out small Confederate flags. Bullying had been pervasive even before that, she said.
Cook reported the fliers to Wyoming Equality, the statewide LGBTQ rights group, because it sponsors GSAs at Wyoming schools, she said, so it was appropriate for her to go to the group. She was told that Jeff Conine, McCormick's principal, was aware of the literature but didn't seem interested in addressing the issue, she said.
That afternoon she received an email from Conine. "I am notifying you that due to incidents that have occurred at McCormick you are no longer welcome as a guest or a substitute teacher in our building," he wrote. He added that if she wished to visit her husband, Jason, a science teacher at the school, she could do so only when students were not present, Cook said.
Cook, who also runs a county-wide GSA outside the school, said she heard from students there that later in the week, Conine gathered the McCormick GSA members and told them basically to ignore the situation with the literature and not to display Pride flags. "The principal has equated the Pride flag to the Confederate flag," she said. She heard that he had a separate meeting with black students and delivered an apology of sorts for what had happened to "your kind," she added.
The Advocate sought comment from Conine via phone and email and has yet to receive a reply; the school was on spring break this past week. He had declined to comment to the Tribune Eagle.
Boyd Brown, the superintendent of Laramie County School District 1, which includes McCormick, told Cook that he believed Conine sent the email in haste, she said. Brown told the Tribune Eagle this week that Cook is likely to be reinstated, and she confirmed to The Advocate that this is indeed the case. Brown also told the local paper one of the students responsible for the fliers has been identified is being and disciplined; because the student is a minor, the district is releasing no further information.
Still, Cook is concerned for the students at McCormick. Historically, the GSA meetings have drawn six to 10 students, but this year the number has swelled to 40, showing that the young people need support, she said. But some teachers refuse to sign permission slips for students to attend GSA meetings, and some have complained about same-sex couples holding hands at school. Hand-holding is the only public display of affection allowed for students, and no one complains about opposite-sex couples doing it, Cook noted. While she's most familiar with the situation of LGBTQ students, she's aware that black students also face bullying and harassment, she said.
"There's a long-standing problem of bullying and lack of protection for all students at McCormick Junior High," she said. Students have a hard time finding adults they can trust and confide in, and teachers are afraid of retaliation if they act to protect students, she added.
Cook, a straight ally, has subbed at McCormick since 2017. She is studying for a master's degree in social work from Boise State University in Idaho. When she took safe zone training in college, she realized she wasn't culturally competent in LGBTQ issues, and she set out to rectify that.
"Now that I work with LGBTQ students and allies, I'm so passionate about it," she said.
Cook said she knows that homophobia, white supremacy, and bullying in general are problems that go far beyond McCormick. Sami Alloy, lead researcher and organizer at Western States Center, a regional civil rights group based in Portland, Ore., seconded that and said bigoted groups are recruiting young people.
"White nationalist and alt-right groups are targeting youth throughout the country, and Wyoming is no exception," Alloy said. They're feeling emboldened in the current political climate, she noted.
Western States Center has created a free tool kit to help schools deal with such groups. The organization has offered it to the Laramie County district, Alloy said.
"Schools have a responsibility to maintain an environment in which students feel safe," she said.
Cook, for her part, hopes to get back to her teaching and GSA work at McCormick soon, and she also hopes that everyone can learn from the situation -- and unlearn some other things.
"Hate's a learned behavior, and there's no place for it in our society," she said.