Report confirms culture of bigoted bullying at junior high

CHEYENNE - McCormick Junior High School had an established culture of racist, homophobic and ableist bullying that some staff either took part in or didn't feel comfortable reporting to administration.

That's the big takeaway from a newly released report of an investigation into the school's climate, after racist and homophobic flyers were found in the building in March 2019. Shortly after the flyer incident, which was widely reported by local media outlets, Laramie County School District 1 launched an internal investigation to determine the "pervasiveness of discriminatory harassment, intimidation and bullying" at McCormick.

("Intermittent use of hate speech")

The report is the culmination of interviews with 29 individual staff members, 17 students, three parents and one representative from Wyoming Equality, which is a local LGBTQ advocacy organization.

Although the final report disputed several specific allegations about the flyer incident, district investigators also reached the conclusion that both McCormick staff and students engaged in targeted bullying well before a student printed those headline-grabbing flyers.

"Intermittent use of hate speech such as 'n-----', 'f-g,' etc." was used by students prior to the March 2019 incident, the report states. The district updated its conduct policy earlier this year to include the use of hate speech as grounds for discipline.

Moreover, investigators also substantiated that some staff used "reoccurring derogatory and/or insensitive language" toward students, such as failing to use a student's desired pronouns or using the phrase "your kind" when speaking to an African American student.

According to the report, four of the 20 subordinate staff members interviewed claimed they feared retaliation if they reported discriminatory bullying. One staff member told investigators that "administration is difficult to work with," according to the report. "They are always in a position of uncertainty, not always truthful, staff get blamed while administration takes the glory, writing referrals are frowned upon," it continued, adding that special education staff "has it worse than others."

The 15-page report substantiates that claim to a degree, concluding that, "There is limited use of a district prescribed process for reporting, documenting and resolving behavioral referrals and reports of bullying, harassment and intimidation."

Olweus, the anti-bullying program the district uses, is "implemented with limited fidelity and commitment by some staff," the report further concluded.

District officials have known about the report's conclusion for roughly one year.

However, all of these details - and many others - were not made publicly available until Monday.

That's because, last year, when the Wyoming Tribune Eagle requested a copy of the report, the district refused to hand it over, citing student privacy concerns under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

The report shows that in addition to staff reacting to cultural implications of the situation, some LCSD1 employees interviewed during the investigation thought "the media has portrayed MJHS in a bad light."

The only reason that detail and many others are known now is because the Tribune Eagle's parent company, APG Media of the Rockies, LLC, joined with the Associated Press; Gray Television, which owns KGWN-TV; Townsquare Media, which owns radio station KGAB; and the Wyoming Liberty Group to sue the district for release of the document. They argued that FERPA-applicable information doesn't necessarily allow the district to withhold the entirety of the report from media outlets or the general public.

Laramie County District Judge Peter Froelicher sided with the petitioners and redacted personal identifiers - like names, pronouns and addresses - outlined in FERPA from the report. But the district pushed back, requesting heavier redactions before releasing it to the public. Last month, Froelicher again ruled against the district, which had 30 days to appeal the decision or release the report.

On Monday, the district announced it would not pursue an appeal, and a redacted version of the report is now accessible - and available in full on WTE's website - to anyone looking for more insight into what went on at McCormick.

"We just felt like (another appeal) wasn't something that would be fruitful with where the laws are now," Boyd Brown, superintendent for LCSD1, Wyoming's largest school district, said Tuesday. "We believe we made the correct decision to at least try to hold the report and keep it confidential. We will continue to keep as much of those investigations and reports as confidential as we can."

Cassie Craven, who works for the Wyoming Liberty Group and helped represent the WTE in the case, characterized the report as "eye-opening," especially after reading details about some McCormick staff's complicity in allowing bullying to persist.

"I can't help but think that plays into part of the reason why they fought so hard to keep this report cloaked under attorney-client privilege. But it also demonstrates the critical need for transparency," said Craven, who added that she frequently fields calls from parents who say the district is sometimes difficult to communicate with when it comes to the concerns raised in the report.

"It's a win for transparency, but it's a bigger win for families. Now they know that what goes on with their child is their business, not just the government's," Craven said.

Bruce Moats, the Cheyenne media attorney who, along with Craven, represented the WTE and other plaintiffs, added that releasing the final report will now allow people to draw their own conclusions about what happened at McCormick.

"I don't think it will answer any debates, but I do think there is a lot of information (in the report) that will at least help people make up their minds about what went on there," Moats said.

Throughout the year-long litigation process, the question of whether the flyer incident was an isolated occurrence or part of a bigger problem lingered.

Now, there's no question that the actions of the unidentified student - who, according to the report, acted alone and faced suspension for it - were, and possibly still are, part of a larger school culture.

"I don't know if we have any worse problems than anyone else - or anywhere else across the U.S.," Brown said. "We're doing our best to try and educate people who don't have those issues, and we'll continue to do that."

More than a year after the bigoted flyers spotlighted the inequitable learning environment some LCSD1 students are learning in, the district has made some changes. First, McCormick Principal Jeff Conine stepped down, but because personnel records are confidential, it's unclear if he was pressured to leave or if he did so on his own accord. Last summer, the district created and filled its first diversity facilitator position, and McCormick laid out a plan for implementing Networks of Support, which is a peer-to-peer mentoring program.

Brown said that even though the schools closed in March to slow the spread of COVID-19, the district is still working to implement anti-bullying efforts.

The report released Monday was limited to investigating the culture at McCormick, which is just one of dozens of schools in the district. But there are signs that inequities and inadequate responses to bigoted bullying were not and are not confined to McCormick.

Over the past several months, community advocates have used LCSD1 Board of Trustees meetings to draw the district's attention to - in addition to additional claims of discriminatory bullying - an overwhelmingly white teacher workforce that serves an increasingly non-white student body, as well as excessive formal disciplining of non-white students.

According to the McCormick report, over the past five years, African American students at McCormick had more than twice as many documented offenses and victimization events than "their population proportion would imply."

Black students make up around 4% of the school's student body; Hispanic students 10%; multi-racial students 3%; and white students 81%.

Federal data suggests McCormick's racially biased discipline trends are the norm across LCSD1, where Black students are 2.3 times more likely than their white peers to be suspended, and Hispanics are 1.7 times more likely.

"We're doing everything we can," Brown said in response to a question about how the district is working to equalize disparities in discipline. Although he offered no specifics on what those efforts look like, he said, "We're trying to keep things equitable out there and continuing to move forward with educating people on that.”