Wyoming district where student arrested extends mask mandate

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — A mask-wearing mandate will continue for at least another month in a Wyoming school district where a student who wouldn’t wear a mask got arrested for allegedly refusing to leave her high school.

Grace Smith, 16, might not be involved in future confrontations at Laramie High School, however. The junior was withdrawing after being “bullied, discriminated against and worst of all, legitimately threatened,” she said at a school board meeting Wednesday.

Albany County School District No. 1 trustees voted 6-1 later in the meeting to extend the district’s mask mandate for everybody inside district buildings until Nov. 12. The mask requirement had been set to expire this Friday.

Wyoming has had one of the lowest vaccination rates and highest COVID-19 rates in the U.S. but the district is among just a few in Wyoming to require masks this fall. Smith’s anti-mask stance is widespread in this conservative state, where Republican Gov. Mark Gordon has vowed not to return to mask mandates since imposing an unpopular one last winter.

Laramie — home to the University of Wyoming, which has been requiring masks in most of its buildings this fall — has been somewhat more receptive to masks than many Wyoming communities which also have had heated debates over masks this fall.

Police arrested Smith at her high school Oct. 7 after she served two consecutive, two-day suspensions for not wearing a mask.

On Oct. 5, she got a $500 trespassing ticket when she returned from her initial suspension and “after talking with our attorney, we decided to push it,” she told the Laramie Boomerang.

Returning two days later, she got another $500 trespassing ticket and was arrested after she still allegedly refused to leave. She was unapologetic in Wednesday’s virtual school board meeting.

“You have bestowed an egregious amount of power upon yourselves,” Smith told the trustees. “You do not own us as kids. You have no right to tell us who we get to be and you have absolutely no right to make our health decisions for us or for our parents.”

School officials have declined to comment on Smith’s suspensions or arrest, saying the school district does not comment on student discipline matters.

The recent absence of state and local mask mandates in Wyoming raises doubts about whether they’re justified at school, Trustee Jason Tangeman said at the meeting before casting the only vote against extending the mask requirement.

“I’m being asked as a layperson on a board to make a health decision,” Tangeman said. “Are we overreacting?”

The other trustees disagreed.

“The fight is worth it. I have no intentions of backing down on this one. This is a pandemic. It kills people. It has killed 700,000 people so far,” Trustee Kim Sorenson said at the meeting.

Members of the public who spoke at the meeting also mostly supported the mask mandate extension. Laramie is struggling with more than just a virus pandemic, local resident Cynthia Weinig told trustees.

“I feel we’re in a pandemic of political partisanship and division in our community, unfortunately,” Weinig said. “We as a community need to come together. It’s the Wyoming way.”

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The Associated Press

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