By Leo Wolfson, State Political Reporter
Although Cody School District Superintendent Vernon Orndorff has apologized for a school librarian calling people pushing to ban books from public schools there “backwards racially” and espousing a “racist ideation,” none has been forthcoming from the librarian.
The comments were made during a June meeting when a pair of books were considered for removal from the school district’s shelves.
“What she implied about me and others like me was that we’re racists,” said Cody resident Carol Armstrong, who filed one of the book complaints. “That was inappropriate and offensive.
“She took a broad brush and painted everyone in Cody.”
Cody School District librarian Jennisen Lucas made the comments to Cowboy State Daily during an interim moment of a meeting where the district’s Educational Resource Complaint Committee considered the requests to ban the books.
Orndorff apologized for Lucas’ remarks after meeting with Jim Vetter, who filed the other book complaint.
“Per our conversation, I apologized to you personally and on behalf of Park County School District 6 and stated that the statement (by Lucas) was no reflection of what Park County School District 6 believes or our beliefs and it is unacceptable for an employee of Park County School District 6 to make such a statement,” Orndorff wrote in an August email.
In a phone interview with Cowboy State Daily, Orndorff clarified that the school district doesn’t condone employees making personal statements when speaking on behalf of the district as an employee, but that he has no issue with employees making comments in a private capacity.
Lucas made her comments while serving as a representative of the school district.
Armstrong said she pushed for an apology from Lucas but has never received one, which she described as “disappointing.”
Lucas initially told Cowboy State Daily on Friday morning she would issue a statement on the matter, but has not responded to multiple follow-up phone calls and emails.
Orndorff would not comment as to whether the district could take action against Lucas for the comments.
When Lucas made her comments alleging racist behavior in June, she never directly referred to the book complainants as being part of this contingency. Still, Armstrong believes the comments were directed at her.
“She painted me with a racist brush, which I don’t deserve,” Armstrong said.
Racist Or Not
Cody is a roughly 10,000-resident town with a mostly white population. The town attracts a large number tourists each year because of its close proximity to Yellowstone National Park.
“I think as a community we’re pretty welcoming,” Armstrong said. “We get people all year long from every nationality, every culture. I don’t see us turning on anyone.”
In 2020, a Rally against Racism was held in Cody, attended by more than 350 people. The event was met with unease and concern by a number of people in the community, many of whom surrounded the park where the event was held while bearing firearms.
Vetter filed his complaint about “How to Be an Antiracist,” a 2019 nonfiction book by American author and historian Ibram X. Kendi. The book discusses the topic of racism and proposals for how to avoid taking racist actions and other systemic changes that can be made.
Vetter’s main complaint about the book was that it supports critical race theory and asserts what he claims are falsehoods and divisive rhetoric.
Vetter believes the book and critical race theory conflicts with Martin Luther King’s desire for a color blind society expressed in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Vetter believes CRT to be a “regressive, backwards solution on race.
“This challenge is NOT about censorship,” Vetter writes in his complaint. “It is about the appropriateness of selection for the high school audience.”
Lucas defended the book at the June meeting, saying it is appropriate for a high school audience.
She also said there are multiple books written by conservative black authors in the Cody High School library, a point Vetter did not agree with in his complaint.
Another Book Challenged
Armstrong filed her complaint about “The Color Purple,” a 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written by Alice Walker. The book is a fictional story about an African American woman in the 1940s American South.
Armstrong said the book is vulgar and inappropriate because it discusses rape, incest and uses profane language, not because it also discusses African American culture.
“I would’ve been embarrassed to read that,” she said of the book.
Lucas said during the meeting in June that “vulgar” language was only used occasionally in “The Color Purple” and “many reviews show” it’s recommended for readers ages 15-16 and older, and sometimes even younger age groups.
“When librarians are looking at that, they’re taking a look at what various published reviews are saying,” she said.
Lucas was president of the American Association of School Librarians at the time she made her comments, but her tenure expired later that month.
Book banning from public schools is a growing movement with districts in Wyoming and nationwide discussing the issue. Some groups have proposed bans of more than 50 books at a time and librarians have faced death threats related to the matter.
Brian Schroeder, Wyoming’s superintendent of public instruction, held a press conference Tuesday morning in Cheyenne on the matter.
Both Cody requests to ban the books were rejected by the Educational Resource Complaint Committee at the June meeting. The district’s school board later affirmed the decisions.
Orndorff said he has confidence the school district’s procedure for considering requests to remove books from their shelves is effective.
“We want our community involved,” he said. “We want their input. We can’t do it alone.”