LHS locks down during anti-mask arrest, then tensions accelerate
Thursday and Friday were far from normal at Laramie High School. As threats and rumors circulated on social media, and anti-mask action continued, many students feared for their safety.
The end of the school-week brought tension, confusion and fear for many at Laramie High School.
The entire semester has played out against the backdrop of vocal — and sometimes rowdy — anti-mask demonstrations, but the recent excitement truly kicked into high gear Thursday.
On that day, a lockdown was brought on by a student who refused to leave the premises, having been suspended twice already for refusing to wear a mask. The student’s father led a self-documented crusade to fight the suspension and his daughter’s eventual arrest. That night, plans for more anti-mask mandate demonstrations circulated on Snapchat. While it appears no demonstration occurred Friday morning, by then a school shooting threat — or rumors of such a threat — had gripped the already tense school community.
There’s no evidence linking the shooting threat to the anti-mask activity — and the shooting threat might not have even been real — but all of these developments contributed to a scary and uncertain atmosphere, according to many who were there or chose not to go.
While several students decided to skip school altogether, others left or were pulled from class by parents. The district had no numbers for how many students went home early, but according to several eyewitness estimations, at least a few dozen students were gone by midday Friday.
And for the students that remained, it was difficult to focus on schoolwork.
“There are threats that there might be a shooting at lunch,” Emily Siuda said Friday morning. “It’s super stressful and I’m scared that it might actually happen.”
Like the anti-mask demonstrations, the school shooting never occurred. But many students and parents view the last two school days as having been severely disrupted by activities outside the classroom.
And the drama is unlikely to die down anytime soon. As the arrested student’s father plots a legal challenge to the school district’s mask mandate, the school board is preparing to meet next Wednesday. The board will decide whether to extend, drop or alter the mandate — and if past board meetings on the topic are any indication, next week’s will be heated, as impassioned parents argue everything from the science of masks and vaccinations to the finer points of the state’s constitution.
The scientific consensus is clear about masks: they work to reduce transmission of the coronavirus, and communities that mask are safer than those that don’t. In Albany County, masks have been touted as a way to keep schools open, as widespread adherence to masking reduces the number of people who must quarantine following a positive case in the classroom.
Thursday: Suspension, Lockdown, Arrest
Albany County School District No. 1 passed its mask mandate early-September, vowing to revisit the mandate mid-October.
Since then, Superintendent Jubal Yennie said compliance has largely been good, but compliance was bad enough that the district stepped up its enforcement.
“Students who do not follow the school board rules and do not wear a face covering will no longer be permitted in District facilities,” states a Sept. 28 email from the district.
Arguing that the mandate violates her constitutional rights — a common argument some lawyers have pushed back on — Grace Smith, a 16-year-old Laramie High School student, chose suspension over compliance.
Following two back-to-back suspensions, Grace returned to the school Thursday morning. Again maskless, she was told to leave and cited for trespassing by a school resource officer. Refusing to leave, she was arrested.
As this played out, the school was placed on lockdown for more than an hour.
Emily Siuda was in study hall at the time. Her class was moved to the pool area during the lockdown. At first, Siuda suspected a school shooting was underway — a possibility that younger generations are all too familiar with.
“Yesterday was really stressful, being in lockdown for so long, not even knowing what was going on,” she said. “We were told that a student was refusing to wear a mask but weren't told that until after being in lockdown for 20 minutes. I was so scared.”
Even after the fear of a school shooting had passed, frustrations remained about the continued impact anti-mask action is having on students’ education.
"As a fellow LHS parent, I am also exhausted by the continued uncertainty of the pandemic,” Chanda Ziegler said. “I respect you, your opinion and right to protest but please, please take your protest somewhere else.”
Those opposed to the mask mandate have disrupted multiple board meetings, protested outside the school and along Grand Avenue, and gathered for occasional demonstrations in front of the district office.
“I have seen how your continued conflict and protests on campus have negatively impacted other students and staff,” Ziegler said. “Students and staff have myriad other pressing issues and this continued disruption is stressful, unhealthy and frankly, pulling needed resources away from others.”
The school day ended without further incident, but rumors and plans began spreading on social media that night.
Friday: Rumor, Threat, Absence
A screenshot circulating on social media appears to show Grace discussing her suspensions and calling for a demonstration Friday morning on Snapchat.
“I refused to leave today because all of this is so stupid, but I got a $500 trespassing citation that has to be (paid) before I can come back,” the Snapchat message reads. “Thankfully, so many helpful parents already offered to pay it, but this is so insane. It’s almost like targeting.”
The message continues, claiming the school is inconsistently enforcing the mask mandate, and calling on others to demand answers about that from school officials.
“Tomorrow morning I have a new plan: Anyone who is willing, meet me by the circle drive at 7:40. We’ll walk in together and I need all of you to start asking questions,” the message reads. “We have to force their hand and make them choose a side. If you choose to do this with me, there are a lot of people willing to pay for citations if you choose to push it that far. I’m just asking for any help I can get.”
Grace could not be reached to confirm or disconfirm that the message was hers, and Andy did not respond to a text asking about the message.
Whatever the message’s origin, the demonstration it called for did not occur.
Another screenshot was circulating Friday morning, again a screenshot from Snapchat. This second screenshot appears to show someone threatening to “shoot up the school.”
The school shooting threat attracted the attention of both the district and the Laramie Police Department, though law enforcement deemed the threat “not credible.”
“We take all threats seriously,” said Steve Morgan, LPD public information officer. “And even if we don’t think they’re credible, we still are on guard and maintaining situational awareness to make sure that we can be prepared for any eventuality.”
Morgan could not say if there was an ongoing investigation into the threat.
Between the demonstration that never occurred and the threat that was never carried out, district spokesperson Sean O’Sullivan said it was an uneventful day for LHS.
“It’s just been a normal day at the high school,” he said.
But some students and parents had a dramatically different experience. Uncertainty surrounding possible anti-mask demonstrations or shootings or both left many with a feeling of unease. O’Sullivan acknowledged that some students chose not to attend school Friday.
Others left early, or were picked up from school by parents when those parents learned of the shooting threat. Still others did not want to leave their kids in the tense atmosphere lingering after the lockdown.
“As a parent, it’s been a stressful couple of days,” said Matt Stannard. “I’m already concerned about sending my kids to school when students are refusing to wear masks. Now I have to worry about whether adult anti-mask zealots are going to illegally enter the high school because they don’t seem to have any political strategy or tactics other than trying to intimidate people.”
Several students and parents claimed that about half the student body was gone by about midday Friday, but others put that figure lower, though still in the dozens. O’Sullivan said he did not have numbers on how many kids had gone home, and was unaware of a mass exodus.
“I haven’t heard anything about students leaving early,” he said.
Future: GoFundMe, Lawsuit, Mandate
The Smiths’ campaign against the mask mandate did not end with Grace’s arrest.
Andy has been documenting his arguments with school officials, resource officers and even LPD Chief Dale Stalder, uploading videos of these arguments to YouTube.
In each, Andy has argued the mandate and its enforcement violate his or his daughter’s constitutional rights. In most of these videos, he is invited to take up his legal concerns in court. Superintendent Jubal Yennie offered to have the district’s attorney get in touch with Andy’s attorney, while Chief Stalder pointed out that he and his officers simply enforce the laws, not argue them.
Andy said he did not want to waste taxpayer money by suing public officials, but that he will. He said he would be represented by Cassie Craven of Longhorn Law.
“At this point, they’ve left us no choice but to move forward with a legal lawsuit,” he said. “It sounds like we’re going to be indicating all of those involved, along with the Albany County School District as a whole. We will be naming independently the school board members, along with Superintendent (Yennie), Laramie High School Principal (Jeff Lewis), and everybody along the way that has refused Grace’s right per her constitution of the state of Wyoming.”
Andy has launched a GoFundMe for Grace’s legal fees, which raised more than $7,300 in its first 24 hours.
Some donors to the fund include Taylor Haynes, who has been vocal on ACSD’s mask mandate previously, Rep. Ocean Andrew (HD-46), and Mike Samp (possibly the University of Wyoming Police Chief, though Chief Samp did not return a request for confirmation Friday).
The Smiths have also found an ally in Sen. Anthony Bouchard (SD-06), who spoke with the father-daughter duo in a video that now appears to be taken down.
The courts are not the only field on which the battle over masks will continue. Next week, the Albany County School Board will meet again to determine the future of the mask mandate.
Despite the sustained campaign to overturn, discredit and disobey the mandate, the metrics used to justify the mandate are worse now than they were when the mandate was imposed.
Albany County has at least 111 active cases, while transmission levels remain high. The delta variant, alongside a poor vaccination rate, has landed Wyoming in the midst of the worst spike it’s seen since the winter spike last year.
In Albany County, 97 percent of new cases are in unvaccinated individuals.
Hospital ICUs across the state, including Ivinson Memorial Hospital’s, are frequently pushed beyond capacity by unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. At least five hospitals, including IMH, saw full ICUs on Friday.
More than 1,000 Wyoming residents have died from the virus, with about 30-40 more now dying each week.