Officials, politicians failed kids, empowered bullies


News of the bullying of black and LGBTQ students at McCormick Junior High School in Cheyenne is shocking, but even more outrageous are the actions of the adults who are supposed to protect them.

Jeff Conine, McCormick’s long-time principal, was removed from the position last Friday. The action was taken a month after homophobic and racist flyers were distributed by students at the school in a series of actions reported by the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle.

“It’s great to be straight. It’s not OK to be gay,” the flyers stated. “Black lives matter only because if it weren’t for them who would pick our cotton. Join the kkk (confederate kid club).”

Conine’s response to the terrible incident? He fired Kaycee Cook, the substitute teacher and co-sponsor of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, who reported it. She first informed the principal and then told Wyoming Equality, a gay rights advocacy group, what happened.

Students and parents later reported that Laramie County School District No. 1 officials decided to ban both Confederate flags and all LGBTQ flags and other materials, as if the two symbols are equal. One can’t help but see shades of President Trump’s insidious stance that there were “some very fine people on both sides,” of the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville.

After taking well-deserved heat from the community for their action, school district officials clarified that the rainbow colors were OK to fly after all. 

A disturbing number of former students and their parents have alleged to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle that Conine and others at the school have for years not only ignored reports of abuse at the hands of other students, but also blamed the young victims. A Title IX investigation has been launched to determine if there is a culture or pattern of bullying at McCormick.

An investigation is appropriate because it’s clear something is horribly wrong at the junior high. The school district should be grateful that Cook, Wyoming Equality, an LGBTQ advocacy group, and the newspaper exposed what is happening.

I am confident that Cheyenne Mayor Marion Orr represented the vast majority in her community and Wyoming when she addressed the controversy over the racist, homophobic flyers on Twitter.

“Tonight, my heart is the heaviest it’s been since taking office,” she wrote. “This is not right. To the youth in our community: You are loved. You are valued. We need you to take us forward. You are Cheyenne.”

But some district officials have tried to downplay the controversy in the media and taken highly questionable actions to try and make it go away. But that’s not going to happen. Supporters of the students have demanded action and it won’t be satisfied by the removal of the principal.

One state legislator, Rep. Scott Clem (R-Gillette), entered the fray with a conspiracy theory — increasingly the stock and trade of his far-right crowd. He accused Wyoming Equality of exploiting the student victims of bullying to “advance their agenda.”

In response to a news story on a conservative Cheyenne radio station’s Facebook page, Clem charged that Wyoming Equality repeatedly “uses underage children and throws them to the media wolves to make a political statement.”

Clem told KGAB talk show host Glenn Woods that school officials should have been able to handle the flyer incident privately, without public scrutiny. Not a surprising position coming from a Wyoming Republican: His party always holds its caucuses behind closed doors.

Clem was also upset when Wyoming Equality filed a complaint against Sen. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne) for allegedly comparing homosexuality with pedophilia and bestiality in a conversation with student lobbyists the past legislative session.

Yes, it’s obvious, the ‘media wolves’ are to blame for Wyoming’s reputation for ignorance and intolerance. It couldn’t be the state lawmaker who made blatantly offensive comments, denied them while essentially confirming them and then tried to portray herself as the real victim.

If there’s anyone who is trying to exploit what happened at McCormick and in the Senate lobby for political gain, it’s Clem. Anyone who gives credence to his attack on Wyoming Equality and its director — fellow Rep. Sara Burlingame (D-Cheyenne) — should read the Sunday Wyoming Tribune-Eagle’s excellent, moving article by education reporter Morgan Hughes. It’s an eye-opening examination of how former principal Conine and other McCormick officials have allegedly mishandled student and parent complaints about bullying and blatant discrimination.

Hughes interviewed at least a dozen students, including two who detailed treatment that left me feeling sad and angry. One heartbreakingly told the reporter he almost committed suicide a week ago after relentless bullying for being bisexual.

His mother said Conine told her several times that her son “sometimes brings [the bullying] on himself,” according to the article. The former principal chose not to comment for the Tribune-Eagle article.

The teen brought a knife to school and intended to kill himself, but instead went to see a counselor and turned in the weapon. He was given a 10-day suspension, told he would likely not be welcomed back at McCormick, and received care at Cheyenne and Denver hospitals. The ninth-grader will spend the rest of the school year at home.

Contrary to district policy, there is no official, written record of his or his mother’s many complaints to the school. All the former McCormick students Hughes interviewed said they were never asked to document the abuse and never had the issues resolved by those in charge.

Another student told Hughes about being tormented by other students who called him names, viciously teased him about his weight and poked him. The harassment resulted in a suicide attempt. Fortunately, he is now enrolled at Cheyenne East High School and doing well.

The student’s mother told Hughes that Conine implied that her son was lying about the harassment and suggested he just needed to learn to make friends.That, Rep. Clem, is what happens when you empower a system to “handle it privately,” free from public scrutiny and the disinfecting power of sunlight. Nothing happens to the perpetrators and the victims suffer the indignity of being told to either ignore the abuse or that there’s nothing they can do about it.

Burlingame had a perfect retort to Clem’s charge that she and Wyoming Equality are “exploiting” students and using them as political pawns. “When have we ever been able to leverage change and protect our children when the abuse of power is kept a secret behind closed doors?” she told the Casper Star-Tribune’s Nick Reynolds. “Never.”

That the McCormick outrage happened just 50 miles from the site of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard’s murder in Laramie two decades ago did not escape anyone’s attention.

“Something’s rotten in Cheyenne, Wyoming,” wrote Graham Gremore of queerty.com.

If the capital city and Equality State are to truly begin healing, McCormick Gay Straight Alliance co-sponsor Cook needs to be reinstated and welcomed back to the halls of the school with open arms. What happened to her is a huge miscarriage of justice, and it needs to be immediately rectified.

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Casper and can be reached at [email protected]

Advertisement

More In Opinions