By Andrew Graham
Weeks after Cheyenne high school students sparked furor after describing vulgar statements by their state senator in the halls of the temporary Capitol building, the Senate president said the body’s response will be considered by a subcommittee of leading senators from both parties.
But as senators debate how to react to an ‘informal’ complaint filed by an LGBTQ advocacy group, the students’ teacher said she and others are considering filing more formal complaints against the senator.
The seven senators — including three Democrats — on the Legislature’s Management Council will decide behind closed doors what disciplinary action, if any, is warranted by the informal complaint filed against Republican Sen. Lynn Hutchings, Senate President Drew Perkins (R-Casper) told WyoFile on Wednesday. If the committee recommends reprimanding or censuring Hutchings, completing those steps would require a majority vote of the full Senate under the Legislature’s rules. Dismissing her would require a two-thirds vote.
Rules say that because the Legislature has adjourned for 2019, any such vote would be taken during the next session of the full Legislature.
The Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees, which oversees the students’ school, investigated whether Hutchings had violated federal Title IX laws, which govern harassment and discrimination in education. The investigation has been concluded but remains confidential, LCSD 1 chairwoman Marguerite Herman told WyoFile.
“Based on that investigation and its conclusions the district at this time is not planning any formal actions,” Herman said. But Liz Edington, a teacher at Central High School and the sponsor of the student’s Gay-Straight Alliance Club, said she is preparing to file a formal complaint. Edington was present for the conversation between the students and Hutchings and documented her concerns in the informal complaint filed by LGBTQ advocacy group Wyoming Equality.
Some of her students are discussing with their parents whether they’ll independently file formal complaints as well, Edington said.
“I don’t think in five years looking back on this I’m going to be OK with letting things go,” Edington said. “I don’t think that’s fair to my students.”
It’s unclear how a formal complaint would change the process as the Senate already appears to be reacting as it would to a formal complaint.
A formal complaint would still be reviewed by the Senate Management Council confidentially, according to the Legislature’s rules. If those senators decide there is probable cause, then a formal investigation would proceed, possibly with public committee hearings. Disciplinary recommendations would go to the full Senate for a vote.
‘More action than just words’
Three students told WyoFile in mid-February that they tried to speak with Hutchings about a bill to prevent workplace discrimination against LGBTQ Wyoming residents, but that the senator instead directed the discussion toward sexual acts. The senator compared homosexuality to adultery, bestiality and pedophilia, the students and their teacher said.
On Tuesday, one of those students asked Senate leadership for “more action than just words” to make LGBTQ Wyoming residents feel welcome in the halls of state government. WyoFile has agreed not to name the students because they are minors.
The conversation with Hutchings, which the students said angered and shocked them, led Wyoming Equality to file a complaint with the Senate. The advocacy group had brought the students to the Legislature as part of a “Civics Day” for high school Gay-Straight Alliance clubs.
Hutchings in a Feb. 12 statement denied that she “compared homosexuality to bestiality or pedophilia.” Instead, she “intended to highlight the vagueness and subjectivity of the term ‘sexual orientation,’” she wrote. Hutchings accused the “individuals demanding an apology” of “racial slurs, character assassination, profanity and threats.” She has not publicly apologized to the students.
In its complaint, Wyoming Equality cited research saying LGBTQ students are more vulnerable to mental health problems in high school because of a lack of acceptance from their peers. Studies have found LGBTQ youth are five times more likely to contemplate suicide as straight youth, the complaint said.
After a flurry of press releases and news coverage, the uproar over the incident largely faded in the capitol building as lawmakers continued their business and senate leadership’s investigation — if any — moved behind closed doors.
At the height of the public furor, Senate President Drew Perkins, Senate Majority Leader Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) and Senate Vice President Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) issued a statement.
“Let us be clear, the message from the Wyoming Senate is this — all Wyoming citizens are welcome here,” they wrote. “We want to hear from you. We need to hear from you.” The Senate leaders are taking “the concerns raised on behalf of these students very seriously,” they said. “Absolutely no one should be made to feel dismissed, disrespected or degraded.”
A 17-year-old student however said she hoped the Legislature would back its statement with action. “They said that any citizen is welcome to the Legislature but they didn’t necessarily do anything about it,” she said. “They didn’t revisit any rules.”
The Hutchings incident came shortly after legislative leadership removed discrimination protections for lawmakers, legislative staffers and members of the public visiting the Capitol based on sexual orientation, gender identity or membership in any other previously protected class such as race. Those protected classes were replaced with language saying “any form of discrimination or harassment is a violation” of policy.
The language in the internal policies was changed to more closely reflect the wording of the Wyoming Constitution, legislators said. Opponents of the change said lawmakers and other policy-setters write rules and laws to make the constitution easier to enforce. Perkins said the Constitution would protect LGBTQ Wyoming residents involving themselves with the Legislature from harassment or discrimination.
“I don’t think it makes a difference” what classes are listed in a policy, Perkins said. “Because, again, the discrimination cannot be based on any condition or circumstance.”
Senators on the Management Council will receive advice from legislative attorneys, review the Senate’s rules and case law from Wyoming and other states as they consider the Hutchings matter, Perkins said.
The complaint thus far remains an informal one at the request of Wyoming Equality, Perkins said. There was little need for further investigation because the elements of the run-in between Hutchings and the students are clear, the senate president said.
“The facts are pretty well established,” Perkins said. “What Lynn [Hutchings] said that she said and what Wyoming Equality said that she said are very, very close.” Discussion of the subcommittee will likely focus not on what happened, but on how the Senate’s rules can be applied, Perkins said.
Elected officials don’t give up free-speech rights when they come to the Legislature, Perkins said. “I think it’s just unfortunate for everybody involved,” Perkins said. “The challenge that we all face is that the Legislature is a public forum and individuals all have First-Amendment rights in a public forum.”
Lawmakers also have more leeway than legislative staff regarding the Legislature’s nondiscrimination and harassment policies, he suggested.
“An elected official is not technically an employee,” Perkins said. “You can’t fire someone who has been elected by their district so there’s a little bit different set of rules [that] apply.”
One student said freedom of speech shouldn’t give Hutchings carte-blanche to say offensive things as a lawmaker. “As students we can’t swear in school,” she said. “I believe it is just as reasonable to ask that a senator don’t talk about sex, pedophilia and bestiality in such a graphic manner to high school students.”
It seemed clear to the student Hutchings had violated Legislative decorum, she said.
The school district’s Herman agreed that free speech shouldn’t be a pass for elected officials. Students had characterized the incident as “degrading and humiliating and mortifying,” Herman said. “If it landed with that kind of impact, then there is a difference.”
In a statement, Wyoming Equality said it would support filers of formal complaints.
“We understand that Sen. Hutching has since said that [her remarks] were taken out of context,” the group wrote. “But we do not believe there is any context where it is right for a senator to compare loving, same-sex relationships to having sexual intercourse with dogs or children. It is hard to know what to do with that; the students have always enjoyed a positive, educational experience with the Supreme Court and Legislature.”
Senate rules governing how complaints against lawmakers are handled call for keeping any response from leadership secret without permission from the complainers to make it public, Perkins previously told WyoFile.
The subcommittee’s hearings on the informal complaint won’t need to be public either. The Wyoming Legislature has a broad exception to the Wyoming Public Meetings Act and legislative committees can close their doors at any time, though they rarely do so. State entities governed by the Public Meetings Act can also go into executive session to discuss ‘personnel matters.’
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.