No, several large Colorado school districts said Tuesday, they are not having issues with students identifying as cats or other animals, as Republican gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl has repeatedly claimed is happening in schools across the state.
Ganahl, a University of Colorado regent running to unseat Gov. Jared Polis next month, said in a radio interview last week that “schools are tolerating” students “identifying as cats.” She then doubled down on that position in subsequent interviews over the past several days: She told Fox31 that she’d received more than 100 messages from parents “across Colorado” talking about the issue in their school.
Ganahl reiterated her concern in a statement to the Denver Post on Tuesday, casting students dressing up like cats as a distraction when they should be learning.
“As a candidate for governor, but more than anything as a parent, my concern is that distractions like children dressing up in costumes at school detract from the reality that 60% of our kids are not performing at grade level,” she said. “It’s tragic that we are failing our children. We need to make them our priority.”
Officials for Denver Public Schools, Cherry Creek Schools, Aurora Public Schools and Colorado Springs School District 11 all denied having any issues with students dressing up as cats or other animals. Two statewide organizations, representing teachers and administrators, criticized Ganahl’s claims and said they had never been made aware of such issues, either.
“Denver Public Schools has not had an issue with students identifying as cats or any other animals,” district spokesman Scott Pribble said in an email, “and we do not provide any accommodations for anyone identifying as cats or other animals.”
Randy Barber, spokesman for Boulder Valley School District, which is included on a list Ganahl’s campaign provided of schools where students dress like animals, said he was unaware of any such issues.
“The concerns being generated by the Republican gubernatorial candidate are baseless,” he said.
The list of schools allegedly affected by the issue does not describe the breadth of the alleged concern at the named school, nor does it provide any detail beyond the schools’ names, location and alleged action taken by administrators. Campaign spokeswoman Lexi Swearingen said it had been compiled by the campaign and by the founders of Jeffco Kids First, a group formed two years ago to advocate for in-person learning. The founders are also part of the campaign’s “parents coalition,” Swearingen said.
A brief document featuring the Jeffco Kids First logo had already been circulating, detailing parents’ complaints about bullying and students dressing in costumes in school, along with other alleged behavior. The group’s co-founder, Lindsay Datko, who moderated an education forum with Ganahl on Sunday, did not return two messages sent Tuesday.
Fifteen of the schools on Ganahl’s list are within Jefferson County Public Schools. A spokeswoman for the district had previously said there was “absolutely no truth” to Ganahl’s claims and that students aren’t allowed in costume; she told the Denver Post on Tuesday that the district has a dress code and principals can restrict clothing, “which would include students dressing in costume.”
Seven of the schools on Ganahl’s list are from Grand Junction. Callie Berkson, spokeswoman for Mesa County Valley School District, said in a statement that educators there had seen some students wearing things like headbands with cat ears on them that are “indicative of a trend which has commonly been referred to as ‘furries.’” But she said it has been present in schools, and in Colorado, for years and is not an issue in the district.
“The District, as well as each individual school, has guidelines dealing with standards of decency, safety, and cleanliness,” she wrote in an email. “Should the behavior of this trend become disrupting to the school environment, we would take appropriate action in addressing the situation.”
Two Douglas County schools are also included on the list, with a note that one of them had to ban dog collars. District spokeswoman Paula Hans said that was not true.
Another inclusion is a Weld County high school. District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said she spoke with an administrator and that the school was “not having issues with students dressing up in costumes at the school.”
The allegation that schools are supporting students dressing up as animals has popped up repeatedly, and been debunked repeatedly, across the United States over the past year. In March, a Nebraska legislator claimed that students there were dressing up as animals and that schools were planning to install litter boxes for those students to use; he later apologized and recanted the statement. Last week, Scott Jensen, the Republican gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota, said kids were identifying as “furries” and using litter boxes.
Ganahl has not claimed that Colorado schools are employing litter boxes. Every district who spoke to the Post on Tuesday said they did not provide litter boxes for students.
The claims are “exhausting” for educators, said Bret Miles, the executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives. His group, along with the Colorado Education Association, described the claims as false. Both groups said no educator, administrator or district had ever reported issues similar to Ganahl’s claims.
“Our educators have been so focused on having a normal school year going through, we’re focused on all of that lost time that kids had over the last few years, and here we are,” Miles said. “School districts are spending time chasing down storylines that were purely for political gain. They have nothing to do with what kids are experiencing at school, and it’s shock and awe. It’s just incredibly frustrating.”
The claims come amid heightened national scrutiny into how schools handle gender identity and sensitive topics generally. One Colorado, an LGBT advocacy group, described Ganahl’s statements as “a disparaging attack on LGBTQ+ youth,” according to a statement from the state Democratic Party. One Colorado’s spokeswoman, Gillian Ford, told the Post that the allegations had already been proven false. She called them “questionable at best and contemptuous at worst.”
“I hesitate to use the word ‘conspiracy theory,’ but I would say this vicious rumor – it’s been debunked how many times already?” Miles said. “Now it’s out there again, in our governor’s race.”
He said the claim is part of a broader effort to politicize what’s happening in the classroom and is contributing to burnout and exhaustion among educators. He said that teachers are dealing with a battery of other issues that deserve attention.
“When you throw this on top of it, it’s coming to the top of list why people are saying, ‘I don’t know why I even want to do this anymore,’” he said. “Politicizing the daily instructions of school and the daily work of a school is rising up the list of why people are questioning of why they want to be in this profession.”
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