Over the summer, the members of a Facebook group called Jeffco Kids First began shifting their concern away from pandemic policies in schools to identities it deemed disruptive to learning. A leading voice in the group told parents to empower their children to find “furries,” kids who dress up in animal accessories, and to record them.
“If any of your kids would be willing to record anonymous audio of their experiences with furries hissing, barking, clawing, chasing, and how it affects their school day, please send to me or let me know ASAP!” Jeffco Kids First creator Lindsay Datko, a parent in Jefferson County Public Schools, posted.
Details like these have not been widely publicized because the Facebook group is private, meaning only members can see what is posted. After being denied entry to the group, Colorado Community Media gained access through a member who wanted the group’s content to be public.
School officials say the group's activities can be disruptive and harmful to kids. But it has some strong backers, including Heidi Ganahl, the Republican Party’s nominee in this fall’s Colorado gubernatorial race. She’s also a member of the group.
“Boy, Jeffco Kids First has been such an impactful and amazing community, and I’ve gotten to know a lot of you over the past couple of years,” Ganahl said in a post in Jeffco Kids First. “You are warriors fighting for our kids every day in the classroom and in school. I want to be a voice for all of you.”
Ganahl has used the issue to spark furor during press interviews.
“Not many people know that we have furries in Colorado schools,” Ganahl said in a Sept. 24 KNUS radio interview. “Have you heard about this? Yeah, kids identifying as cats. It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but it’s happening all over Colorado and schools are tolerating it. It’s insane.”
Ganahl pointed to Jefferson County Schools in the interview.
While principals can act to minimize distractions at schools, like placing restrictions on disruptive attire, the tactics of Jeffco Kids First amount to an attack on children, School Board President Stephanie Schooley told Colorado Community Media.
“What I want is for people to stop demonizing our kids,” Schooley said. “That’s what I feel like has been happening, that in objecting to and playing some of these identity politics, our kids hear this language … and they don’t understand why people hate them for who they are, for how they were born and who they’ve become. They don’t understand and that is, psychologically, so very damaging. It makes my heart hurt.”
Inside Jeffco Kids First
Neither Datko nor Ganahl responded to Colorado Community Media’s requests for interviews about the Facebook group’s activities.
Last month, Datko urged the nearly 6,000 members of Jeffco Kids First to have their kids secretly record their classmates.
“The media is trying to spin this,” Datko wrote in the post.
A member of the group posted an additional suggestion: “go on tiktok and use the keywords furries and Colorado school.”
A Colorado Community Media search of TikTok found numerous posts where purported students in the state recorded videos of classmates, who seemed unaware they were being filmed dressed in costumes and accessories. Some posts contained threats against the students being filmed.
One post of a student apparently filmed without their knowledge contained the hashtag “#killfurrys.” Other posts harshly mocked the students.
Other TikTok posts showed kids who described being bullied for wearing furry costumes or being associated with furries. Some of them complained that they were targeted.
Several middle-school-aged students at one Jefferson County school who were interviewed for this story said “between 10 and 20” students occasionally dressed up in animal accessories at their school. The students said kids were wearing animal-themed accessories, such as headbands or tails.
The students said the accessories were not disruptive to their learning, as the students who dress up were not allowed to wear the accessories in a classroom setting.
The students added that few students wear such items to school and do it only occasionally. Moreover, the frequency had declined dramatically after their principal cautioned students against it, the students interviewed said. The students also described feeling stressed and fearful of other bullying, especially online.
“I think we need to decipher between what is a furry and a kid wearing cat ears,” one Jeffco parent told Colorado Community Media. "Is a furry a kid wearing cat ears or what I see adults in Olde Town Arvada wearing sometimes? A (sports) mascot could be considered a furry by this group’s definition.”
Every student and parent interviewed for this story asked to be anonymous because they fear retaliation. They asked that their school not be identified in the story for the same reasons.
Even members of Jeffco Kids First seem caught in the crosshairs. One posted an account of their own child’s experience of dressing up.
“So, my daughter wanted to be a furry,” the Oct. 7 post said. “I didn’t give my opinion and just observed. She is shy and quiet. Her and her friend liked the movie, ‘Wonder’ because of the ability to hide. Their choice of animal was a raptor … They decorated it with fur and made it girly.
“When the boy next door heard my daughter was a 'furry,’ he was disgusted,” the post continued. “I asked him why, and he said he doesn’t have time for that nonsense with all his sports … Well, my daughter now is moving away from furries because of the bad rap … My current view is that furries are still on the low here. I could be wrong.”
In response, one Jeffco Kids First group member wrote: “I appreciate the courage it took to post this.”
Is Jeffco Kids First anti-LGBTQ+?
The controversy swirling around “furries” has at times been linked to anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, particularly gender identity issues, like the pronouns students use to identify themselves.
But observers of Jeffco Kids First, like Schooley, who is not a member of the group, are hesitant to call the group anti-LGBTQ+.
“Their group is large,” Schooley said. “I am always hesitant to put blanket statements out about large groups of people. What they put out as an organization, there’s nothing objectionable when you look at their graphic that says what they’re for, what they’re against.”
The graphic Schooley points to says Jeffco Kids First advocates for “parental consent, classroom transparency, parental choice and respect, greater communication with teachers and schools, consideration of sensitive topics and student backgrounds'' and “unity.” The graphic says the group opposes “hate, division, veering from state standards and approved curriculum, removal of rights, removal of diversity, removal of resources and supports for students.”
Yet the group has questioned practices pertaining to transgender students. Founder Lindsay Datko posted a graphic: “Ask my child their name, not their pronouns,” and has cited Jefferson County Schools' policy on controversial/sensitive issues, arguing that gender identity falls into that category, claiming that students are being forced to share pronouns against their will.
“Let’s think about something: Is asking every child their pronouns productive to the transgender community?” Datko posted on Sept. 26. “Students are forced in nearly every (if not every) secondary school.”
Schooley doesn’t consider gender identity something that falls under the controversial topics policy, which was last updated in 2013. It allows for students or parents to request alternative programming if they take issue with parts of the curriculum that represent 'differing underlying values, beliefs, and interests’ from those of a parent or student.
“For me, the controversial topics policy is really to provide parents with the opportunity to understand what their kids are learning and content, and if that content is not something that they appreciate for their child, to provide a process to have an alternative,” Schooley said. “I do not support, in any way, shape or form, having the identities of our students, their families or our staff be anywhere near the controversial issues policy.”
Jeffco Schools Board Treasurer Danielle Varda agrees.
“Some people have invoked the controversial topics policy in regards to concerns about asking kids about their preferred pronouns,” Varda said. “However, the policy only covers sensitive topics that may be covered in instruction and by the curriculum.”
Schooley added that, to her knowledge, no child in the Jeffco district is mandated to share pronouns and explained how making pronoun disclosure optional also protects LGBTQ+ students.
“If a student didn’t feel comfortable — and it’s not just students who object, who think it’s silly to use pronouns, because I know there are people that prefer not to even consider them — and we also have students who are struggling with their gender identity and don’t want to declare ‘I’m this or that,’ because they don’t know yet,” Schooley said. “We want to be able to honor all of that spectrum, and we do that by making it optional. There are teachers that will ask. Students have no obligation.”
Schooley said some of the messaging from Jeffco Kids First has sparked some anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments from group members.
“My experience has been people writing me letters who are representatives of that group, not at the very top, but members of that group, and it is pretty harsh rhetoric in a lot of those letters,” Schooley said. “I would say that with that, it’s pretty clearly uncomfortable with having LGBTQIA+, having the letters put in that order and talked about with children.
“To me, is it anti-LGBTQ+? The letters I’ve received were,” Schooley continued. “I’m not calling the entire group that. That’s not fair at all, but the letters I’ve received, some of them were specifically very hard to read.”
Colorado Community Media intends to file a Colorado Open Records Act request for the letters.
Jeffco Schools Executive Director of Communications Kimberly Eloe said that the district did not promise to review or change any district policy after meeting with representatives of Jeffco Kids First, despite posts in the group claiming otherwise.
When Colorado Community Media asked Jeffco Schools Superintendent Tracy Dorland for a comment on this story, a statement from the district’s communications department was issued without attribution to Dorland or the opportunity to interview her.
“Jeffco Public Schools has district policy around appropriate dress code,” it states. “If clothing is disruptive, district policy gives the principal power to place restrictions on it, this would include students dressing in costume. We do not have litter boxes in schools.”
Lindsay Datko, in her own words
Datko did not respond to interview requests from Colorado Community Media. However, in audio obtained from an Oct. 4 forum hosted by Datko for Republican political candidates, Datko explains the proliferation and evolution of Jeffco Kids First.
Datko said that the group began in 2020 in response to COVID-19 policies and lobbied the school district and the county health department to relax restrictions on students in the early months of the pandemic.
She claimed that other issues, including what she calls parental transparency, had come to her attention during this time, but she waited to shift the focus of Jeffco Kids First out of fear of losing members.
“We kept pushing it off and pushing it off because we had such a clear mission to fulfill at that time during the pandemic,” Datko said of parental transparency. She said she warned group members, “’We know we might lose you; we’re going to turn to these issues and that will be sad, but if you’ll stay, we’d love your perspective and you’ve been such a value.’”
Datko then called Jeffco’s curriculum “appalling” and defined parental choice in her own words.
“Books and literature that are presented, curriculum that’s used … it’s appalling,” Datko said. “It’s shocking. It’s very important that we push for parental choice in every regard. Parental choice consists of being able to move schools, to have a say in controversial topics and what’s asked of our students on survey, that policy is followed, that policy keeps order, that policy keeps families safe and secure. And it’s being broken right and left.”
Varda, the school board treasurer and a Jeffco parent, said her experience differs from Datko’s.
“I’m proud to be a parent in a District that has overwhelming support for these values and beliefs, and although some groups will say otherwise and try to cast doubt, my experience has been one of transparency and support for the unique needs and identities of my kids,” Varda said.
Schooley said the district has a duty to be clear about its policies and practices, but the engagement from members of Jeffco Kids First isn’t always conducive to discussion.
“I think it’s regrettable that sometimes it feels like in this call for more transparency, greater parent engagement and their pillars, it does feel like there’s not a whole lot of room for conversation,” Schooley said. “That if the district is doing something that parents don’t like, it becomes a very immediate offensive act, a nefarious thing. There’s automatically an ill-intent that’s assigned to it, and I find that challenging because I don’t know where to go with that.”
Schooley also said she is open to conversations and has conversed with “anyone who has asked.”
On Oct. 4, Datko maintained that Jeffco Kids First is a bipartisan group and declared that she would continue to pursue her version of parental transparency.
“Hopefully they can see though that we don’t always agree, we are united behind choice, and we can honor the choices of everybody and fight for that,” Datko said. “And that’s what we’re doing. That’s our new mission.”
'All the crazy, weird, sometimes awkward and phenomenal experiences of being a kid’
Datko has this year been touted as one of the Ganahl Gals, a women’s group that aims to help Ganahl beat Democrat Jared Polis in the November election.
Ganahl’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Varda, a mother of three and a tenured professor at the University of Colorado-Denver, said the furry issue is much ado about nothing. She emphasized that students are young and exploring their lives in creative ways and it is important for their long-term mental health to be open and authentic, according to her research.
“I am certain that when we give kids not only the academic tools they need to achieve but also meet their social and economic barriers with resources, support, assurances of belonging and love, we will see accelerated learning, improved outcomes and long-term opportunities for success,” Varda said.
Schooley said that while the efforts of Jeffco Kids First have garnered significant media attention and sidetracked district employees, far more letters from the community came in to bolster support for students.
“Once there was an awareness that this group was initiating this letter-writing campaign, we did start getting a lot of letters from parents, community members, students — there were a lot of students that wrote in — alums of Jeffco schools, very, very grateful and protective of things like Gay-Straight Alliance clubs in schools, over safe spaces and trusted adults in schools that students can talk to that are LGBTQ friendly, around policies that provide supports and some protections for students,” Schooley said.
“It was pretty overwhelming, that response,” Schooley continued. “It was significantly more emails (that) came in in support of affirming practices than otherwise. Which was great, to me, that’s my value set. I think people mobilized around that out of concern that the district would only hear one perspective and it would be not good for kids.”
The board is in the process of reviewing legal advice pertaining to the policy on controversial topics. If enough board members feel it should be reworked, there could be public hearings.
Schooley said students need support to be themselves.
“There are a whole lot more people in their corner who are ready to provide support,” Schooley said. “It’s like Parasol Patrol, I will be your umbrella; there are lots of us who want to provide a barrier so you can be a kid and you can go through all the crazy, weird, sometimes awkward and phenomenal experiences of being a kid and umbrellas are open to protect you from those things because there is zero reason why our children should be hearing that about themselves. To me, it’s pretty unconscionable.”
Editor's note: Lindsay Datko contacted Colorado Community Media after online publication of this story to seek a retraction, stating that she sought "anonymous verbal statements from children." Datko disagreed with the article's sentence, "Datko urged the nearly 6,000 members of Jeffco Kids First to have their kids secretly record their classmates.” Screenshots from the group show she made that request. Datko confirmed to Colorado Community Media that she received pictures of students but indicated to the group that she has not used them.