In late October, Don Bolduc, the Republican U.S. Senate nominee in New Hampshire, claimed schools were offering litter boxes for students who identified as cats and are part of the furries subculture.
“We have furries and fuzzies in classrooms,” Bolduc said at an Oct. 27 campaign event in North Hampton, N.H. “They lick themselves, they’re cats. When they don’t like something, they hiss… and get this, get this, they’re putting litter boxes [in schools] for them.”
In his comments, Bolduc specifically mentioned Pinkerton Academy, a high school in Derry, N.H., that serves both public and private, tuition-paying students. Bolduc is among a group of Republican politicians and pundits who spread the same hoax throughout the campaign cycle, causing communications crises for school leaders.
“The initial reaction was, really? Now we’re going to talk about litter boxes and bathrooms and kids, that’s what we’re talking about now?” Pinkerton Academy Headmaster Tim Powers said.
It’s unclear exactly where the litter box hoax came from. In December 2021, a community member shared the rumor during the public comment section of a Midland Public School Board meeting in Michigan that was later debunked by the school district. But that didn’t stop Meshawn Maddock, a leader of the Michigan Republican party, from sharing it on Facebook and spreading it further, according to reporting from the New York Times.
It then popped up in a number of communities as the 2022 midterms campaign season gained traction. Last March, Nebraska state Sen. Bruce Bostelman, a Republican, spread the hoax during a debate on the floor of the legislature about a bill that would help school children who have behavioral problems. He later retracted his comments after finding out they weren’t true, according to reporting by the AssociatedPress. In early October, Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., claimed that people “are putting litter boxes in schools for people who identify as cats,” according to reporting from the Colorado Times Recorder.
And Joe Rogan, a comedian and podcast host, said he knew of a school that was offering litter boxes to students on the Oct. 11 episode of his podcast “The Joe Rogan Experience.” Rogan also backtracked on his claims, saying “it doesn’t seem that there’s any proof that they put the litter box in there” on a later podcast episode.
It’s fascinating to see smart, common-sense people get sucked into the narrative and actually believe it’s happening. But, quite frankly, it’s offensive. It’s offensive to our teachers, to our principals, to our students.”
All of the claims have been debunked, often by school leaders themselves who posted statements on social media and school websites to limit the rumor’s spread. Powers and his team posted a statement on the school’s Twitter account refuting Bolduc’s claims.
But the hoax still has a lasting impact during a time when schools need to be laser focused on solving staffing challenges and helping students regain their academic footing. It was also unfairly and inaccurately used to ostracize LGBTQ students, who are not necessarily part of the furries subculture, in which people dress up as animals.
“It takes us away from what we’re working on and what we’re trying to accomplish on a daily basis,” Powers said. “Anytime you have something like that, time and resources are spent … which then just takes us away from the good work that’s being done by our faculty and staff on a daily basis.”
Rumor has it ...
The litter box rumor isn’t the first hoax of its kind to circulate about—and throughout—schools. Administrators have had to debunk everything from rumors of menacing clowns terrorizing students in 2016 to more recent claims that schools are indoctrinating students through critical race theory, the academic concept that teaches race is a social construct embedded into legal systems and policies.
Even though they aren’t new, school hoaxes and rumors have become more political in recent years, said Cathy Kedjidjian, president of the National School Public Relations Association.
“I wouldn’t say there’s more [hoaxes], there’s just more of a need to respond because parents, students, staff, community members are getting that information faster and from different sources,” she said.
The increasing political nature of the rumors prompted the Grand Forks school district in North Dakota to establish a “Rumor Has It” page on its website, which debunks false information about the district providing litter boxes for students and teaching critical race theory. The litter boxes rumor circulated on social media and local radio shows earlier this year.
The page also provides information on relevant news items, such as how the district uses the H1-B visa program to hire specialty international workers to fill staffing shortages, and how Grand Forks student ACT scores compare with other students in the area.
“We know sometimes information can get misunderstood and unfortunately, there can be disinformation out there,” said Tracy Jentz, the communications and community engagement coordinator for the district and the north central region vice president for NSPRA. “We always want to be the ones to tell our story.”
So far, the “Rumor Has It” page has been helpful in combatting harmful rumors and gathering positive feedback from the community, Grand Forks Superintendent Terry Brenner said.
“It’s fascinating to see smart, common sense people get sucked into the narrative and actually believe it’s happening—that we have students dressing up like animals, that we have litter boxes in our schools,” Brenner said. “But, quite frankly, it’s offensive. It’s offensive to our teachers, to our principals, to our students. And we just wanted to try to knock that noise down at the very least at the local level.”
A political distraction
With each hoax and rumor come more distractions for school administrators. Powers, the headmaster of Pinkerton Academy, said the rumors take resources away from academics and student learning and ultimately frustrate an already tired staff.
When Bolduc spread the hoax about Pinkerton, it didn’t take long for it to be picked up by local and some national media outlets. Powers and his staff had to respond quickly, pulling together a statement to publish on social media on a Sunday night.
“It becomes a distraction from what it is that we’re trying to do on a daily basis,” he said. “What’s unfortunate is then you’re answering questions or dealing with topics like [the hoax] as opposed to all the good things that are going on in the classrooms and what we’re really here to do, educate the students.”
Powers said that he couldn’t guess what politicians like Bolduc stood to gain politically from spreading the rumors. Bolduc ultimately lost his race against Democratic incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan. But other politicians who spread the rumor, including Boebert in Colorado, won.
Brenner found the hoax in his school community to be “purposefully deceitful” and part of an overarching political agenda to sow distrust in public schools.
Over the past two years, lawmakers have passed laws that limit how teachers can discuss race, gender, and sexuality and give parents the power to review curriculum. Those laws have been damaging to marginalized communities, especially LGBTQ students, who in turn were unfairly linked to the rumor about litter boxes. Furries, a subculture of people who are interested in anthropomorphic animal characters and often dress up as them, are not directly connected to the LGBTQ community, but the hoax has still been used to ridicule LGBTQ students, Jentz said.
“Furries, and what it means and what it is, and what some people are trying to make it out to be are two very different things,” she said.
Brenner worries that the hoax serves as another tool for school choice advocates to sow division between public school parents and educators.
“I think it’s an agenda that has been started by a small minority group and a political wing,” said Brenner, who emphasized he was speaking about his own personal opinion and not on behalf of the district. “They are trying to dismantle public education as we know it. By starting all of this disinformation, they can say, ‘public schools aren’t the answer. Students aren’t achieving academically, socially, behaviorally, or emotionally. So, let’s get the voucher system going.’”