The final days of the 2020-21 academic year for most Wyoming schools landed in June when, in addition to graduation and other end-of-year celebrations, many Wyoming students celebrated Pride Month.
But efforts to celebrate Pride at two Wyoming high schools were met with opposition from fellow students, and then some staff, who argued that rainbow flags and LGBTQ-supportive messaging ran afoul of prohibitions on overtly or disruptive “political” speech.
Teachers and administrators at Natrona County High School, under pressure from students, took down some Pride posters and left others, according to district officials and several students who spoke to WyoFile. In some instances, teachers had participated with students to create and hang the posters.
Discarded posters included one with the image of NCHS alum Matthew Shepard. Shepard, who was gay, became a national symbol for LGBTQ support after he was brutally murdered in the fall of 1998.
Duplicates of the Shepard poster were reposted and allowed to remain, according to district officials.
In Powell, a group of students entered Powell High School classrooms after school hours and removed images and messages in support of Pride. No disciplinary actions were taken, Park County School District 1 Superintendent Jay Curtis said. Responding to a separate report of a teacher displaying a Pride symbol in a classroom, Curtis said he sent a message to all teachers in the district: While students may display Pride symbols and political messaging, teachers are prohibited from doing so, Curtis told WyoFile.
“There’s a big difference between students engaging in political speech and teachers engaging in political speech,” Curtis said. “We actually encourage our students to engage in tough, critical dialogue surrounding these issues.
“We as a school district have to maintain neutrality,” Curtis continued. “But in no way shape or form does that mean we don’t support our (Gay-Straight Alliance). It doesn’t mean we don’t support the LGBT community, it doesn’t mean we don’t provide a safe place for them. It just means that we can’t hang paraphernalia that would be considered political speech.”
Curtis said he considers Pride to be political and that, despite the First Amendment protections on speech, schools have legal precedent to restrict forms of expression that may disrupt the school environment or infringe on the rights of students.
In Casper, Pride colors and symbols are not considered overtly political or necessarily off-limits for teachers or staff, and certainly not for students, Natrona County School District 1 Superintendent Mike Jennings said. For example, no policies were violated when teachers helped students create and display Pride posters. However, any poster for display in district schools must have prior approval from the school’s principal. NCHS outgoing Principal Shannon Harris approved several posters for Pride Month in June, Jennings said.
But the school’s policies are vague and inconsistently applied, according to NCHS students who spoke with WyoFile.
Students have been “dress-coded” for wearing Pride garb and other ideological symbolism for allegedly being overtly political or disruptive, they said. Yet the school itself prominently displays banners depicting the Thin Blue Line flag and “Back The Blue” messaging in support of police. Some students consider Thin Blue Line messaging as direct opposition to Black Lives Matter, they said.
“I think there’s a lack of understanding on (NCHS administrators’) part that anything they do is going to be inherently political, because everything is political,” former NCHS student and incoming University of Wyoming sophomore Tanner Ewalt said. Whatever the school’s policy, he added, its burden “seems to disproportionately fall on minority students, whether they be gay or people of color or anybody who’s just not a straight white.”
NCHS incoming senior Daniel Ramsey is involved in numerous school activities and clubs, including student council, speech and debate and NC United, the school’s diversity club. He’s 6-foot-3 and wears his political beliefs on his sleeve. He identifies as nonbinary.
Ramsey’s fellow students have elected him class president twice.
“I’m a metal/punk-head and fairly popular,” Ramsey said, adding he’s not easily intimidated and tries to create alliances among all students. He frequently engages with teachers and fellow students to have thoughtful conversations about social issues and matters of inclusivity, he said.
There’s evolving support from teachers and students alike at NCHS, he said, for the LGBTQ community and for other minority students. Despite progress on these fronts, however, the increasingly intense partisanship and social divisions across the nation today also play out in Wyoming schools, Ramsey and other students said, where minority students still feel especially vulnerable and isolated.
Wyoming consistently suffers the highest or second-highest suicide rate in the nation. Young LGBTQ people are particularly at risk.
Bullying and racism among students remains prevalent, Ramsey said, yet only extreme examples make headlines.
In January 2020, a racial slur was written on NCHS school property. NCHS students also reportedly chanted “the South will rise again.” In 2019, two Riverton High School students wore white robes and hoods to school. Numerous incidents against Wyoming LGBTQ students have also been reported.
While speaking to students at Greybull High School in 2017, then U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyoming, said, “I know a guy that wears a tutu and goes to the bars on Friday night and is always surprised that he gets in fights. Well, he kind of asks for it a little bit. That’s the way he winds up with that kind of problem.”
Wyoming residents interpreted Enzi’s comments as taking aim at Larry “Sissy” Goodwin, a Vietnam veteran and Casper College professor who, for decades, wore women’s clothing in public.
In response, many showed support for Goodwin and the LGBTQ community by gathering in public wearing tutus.
Efforts to celebrate Pride Month at NCHS were not intended to be overtly political, Ramsey said. The point was to show support for a minority population of students who need a sense of belonging and who struggle against culturally ingrained anti-LGBTQ sentiments, he said. Students and some teachers collaborated to carefully design Pride posters to “not be politicized,” he said.
“They had simple things like song lyrics, simple statements that this school supports Pride Month as a whole,” Ramsey said. “The only thing about them that ended up making people mad was the fact they had the rainbow (Pride colors) background.”
At first it was fellow students who began taking down Pride posters, according to Ramsey and others. Other students replaced them with new posters. Also divided, teachers joined in taking posters down and replacing them, WyoFile confirmed with district officials. The situation escalated until Principal Harris reiterated that no posters were allowed without her approval, which is the district’s policy, according to Superintendent Jennings.
But that brought little resolution in the final days of school.
“I think there were some process blunders between staff and administration,” Jennings said. “More importantly, I think there needs to be a conversation with students about how they felt and how can we come together and become stronger?”
That sort of de-escalation and conversation didn’t happen as the situation played out in the final days of school, Ramsey said. LGBTQ students were left feeling like school officials had relented to a bullying attitude among a segment of students, he said. Assurances from school officials that policy, not anti-Pride or anti-LGBTQ pressure from other students, was the basis of administrative actions fell flat.
Ramsey said several LGBTQ students didn’t want to return to classes during the clash over Pride posters. “Some are even debating homeschooling because of the fact of that lack of support and because they feel at danger at school.”
Pride is a symbol of inclusion and understanding, former NCHS student Ewalt said. More than that, it’s a symbol of identity for many students.
“If you had to grow up in a place where you have the feeling that you’re not accepted, having any space where you’re able to freely be you is a huge thing,” Ewalt said. “And that’s what the Pride flag represents to a lot of people.”
Given the recent history of racial and political tensions at NCHS and throughout Wyoming, Ewalt said, it’s easy to understand why some students didn’t see well-intentioned policy nuance in actions by school officials.
“If a student rips a poster down, you know, that’s one thing. … When the administration takes the poster down, that’s institutional power backing the bully in that situation,” he said.
According to Ramsey and other NCHS students who spoke with WyoFile, what transpired over Pride posters was fueled in part by growing divisions among students and a lack of understanding among school officials about how to respond.
A couple of years ago, something of a “turf war” played out in the student parking lot, students said.
Confederate and Make America Great Again flags were on display, as were opposing messages. That’s when some students were heard chanting “the South will rise again,” and the N-word was scrawled on school property.
Students complained and school officials cracked down. Some students insisted that if symbols like the Confederate flag can’t be flown, neither can the Pride flag. What’s followed, according to Ramsey and other students, has been confusion about what type of speech is considered overtly political, divisive or disruptive to the learning environment at NCHS.
“There was a Blue Lives Matter banner hanging in the commons for months,” NCHS student Garrett Grochowski said. “No one took that down. Nothing happened with that. But no, the second you put a pride Poster on a wall, you know, ‘We don’t want to get political. Let’s take it down.’
Superintendent Jennings said it’s a huge concern if any student or district employee feels they don’t belong as that sense of belonging is paramount to any learning environment. What transpired during Pride Month at NCHS, he said, serves as a call to initiate more conversations and actions about how to acknowledge the sometimes intense social and political divisions within schools in ways that ensure nobody feels unheard, unrecognized or isolated.
“Our primary objective is to educate students; that’s our goal,” Jennings said. “We work diligently to create a safe and orderly school environment so we can educate students. That means that students, in order to learn successfully, have to have a sense of belonging, that they’re part of the school system, that they’re listened to. Those are really important tenets.”
Administrators plan to engage with students and teachers in the fall about what can be learned from the recent Pride issue at NCHS and how to better ensure that all students feel safe and that they belong, Jennings said.
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.