Standoff over mask requirement forces lockdown of school
LARAMIE — Laramie High School was locked down for about 90 minutes Thursday morning during a showdown of wills between school administration and a 16-year-old junior who was arrested and removed from the school in handcuffs.
Grace Smith returned to LHS on Thursday morning after serving two consecutive two-day suspensions for not complying with Albany County School District No. 1’s mask mandate, which says anyone inside a district building must have his or her face covered. The rule, brought on by an upsurge in COVID-19 cases, was put in place last month and will be reviewed by the school board next week, ahead of a scheduled Oct. 15 sunset.
Until then, Smith said she believes the mandate violates her constitutional rights and that she won’t wear a mask. As a result, she has been warned by LHS administration and faces two days of disciplinary suspension and a misdemeanor trespassing citation for every time she’s in the building and declines to mask up.
The first time she was suspended, “I just left,” Smith said. “Then, after talking with our attorney, we decided to push it, so on Tuesday I didn’t (leave) and took the citation for $500 and then left.”
By not leaving, she was ticketed by the Laramie Police Department for trespassing. After serving a two-day suspension, she returned Thursday and again was ticketed for trespassing.
When she still refused to leave the school, saying she has a right to be there, she was arrested. A pair of LPD officers had Smith put her hands in front of her, placed her in handcuffs and transported her to the police station in downtown Laramie, where Smith was released. The episode was captured on video by Smith on her phone and shows the interactions were calm and respectful on all sides.
While she knew another $500 citation was coming her way, Smith said she was surprised the incident evolved to include a schoolwide lockdown and her arrest, especially as she wasn’t making a scene, wasn’t yelling and had made no threatening comments or actions.
“They told me they were going to do that,” she said about the time leading up to her arrest. “I was surprised they followed through. They came up to me probably 20 minutes before I was arrested and said that if you continue to not leave, we will arrest you.”
That also was a departure from an early conversation the Smith family had with Laramie police about what would happen if Grace continues to show up to school and not mask up, said Andy Smith, Grace’s father.
“They told us how this was going to play out before it happened,” he said. “They all said they were not going to arrest kids. But she was taken into custody, handcuffed and brought down to the detention center.”
In a short statement, the school district acknowledged the “brief lockdown,” which was done in response to a “student disciplinary disturbance” at the main office of the school.
Sean O’Sullivan, a spokesman for the school district, said principals across the district were in one location for a weekly meeting at the time and that nobody was hurt.
“Everyone is safe,” he said. “That’s the big key right now.”
The statement also says the lockdown wasn’t done because of any specific threat of violence or potential for harm.
“The lockdown was issued in order to prevent further interruptions to academic learning,” the statement says.
When asked about how many suspensions have been handed down because of students not wearing masks, O’Sullivan declined to answer, citing the statement, which says that “the school district does not comment on student discipline matters.”
As for any “disturbance” at the school, Grace said there was none. She was calm and quiet, as were school officials, and that for the most part she just sat in the office.
Now, with the potential for future mask refusals to also result in lockdowns, Grace said she is concerned other students and teachers could retaliate.
But she’s prepared for that, and said there already has been some bullying from people she used to consider friends.
“It’s pretty likely some will hold (the lockdown) against me, too, but I would never purposely try to hurt anybody,” she said.
When asked why she’s making such a dramatic stand about wearing a mask, Grace said it’s because she feels morally obligated to stand up for her beliefs.
“It’s because I’m growing up in a country where I’m supposed to have my God-given rights to protect, and they’re being taken away,” she said. “Everybody has the freedom to wear a mask if they choose, but I believe everybody also has the right to not wear a mask if they choose.”
While she has the support of her parents, Andy and Erin, Grace denied they influenced her to act out.
“It was my choice,” she said. “I started refusing masks, and I told them about that. But they’ve been supporting me, and they’ve made it clear this is my choice.”
Andy said he and his wife will continue to support their daughter. They have retained an attorney to fight the citations and, if necessary, the school district’s mandate. That would be a last resort, he said, because he would consider the school or city having to defend a lawsuit a waste of public money.
As for the rest of the school year, it may be over for Grace as an in-person student at Laramie High. She can return after her latest two-day suspension Monday. But when the suspensions add up to 10 days, the potential for expulsion kicks in.
For a straight-A student who takes Advanced Placement classes, not attending school is a sacrifice, she said. She also would have to give up her lead role in the school play and her spot on the dance team.
As eye-opening as being placed in handcuffs and arrested has been, Grace said she has had another type of education since organizing a Sept. 10 walkout and public protest over masks.
“I get cussed out a lot,” she said. “People have called me mean names. Nobody has physically harmed me, but some of my best friends now won’t talk to me.”
She also said the bullying doesn’t just come from students.
“The discrimination from the teachers is just absurd,” Grace said. “I had one teacher who tried to force a mask onto my face.”
In a news release last week, the school district said students who refuse to wear a mask would no longer be allowed inside a district facility. The only exception is for a student who is unable to remove a mask independently.
Superintendent Jubal Yennie said last week that, overall, mask compliance has been good.
“In all things, there’s always those situations that aren’t good, and (Laramie High School Principal Jeff Lewis) and I are working through those as best we can,” he said.
The Albany County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees approved an operation plan Sept. 8 that includes a universal mask mandate in all buildings and buses. It runs through Oct. 15, and the board is scheduled to revisit the plan during its regular meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday, which will be held virtually.
To consider lifting the mandate, the county will need to be in the COVID “Yellow Zone” for three weeks, indicating moderate transmission, or have its vaccination rate hit at least 70 percent.
The Wyoming Department of Health reports that as of Monday, the county is in the “Red Zone,” indicating high transmission levels and a vaccination rate of 49 percent.