Elsie Arntzen, Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction, walks into Parental Rights Education Action meeting at Crosspoint Church in Missoula, Montana on November 1, 2021. (Provided by Tommy Martino for the Daily Montanan)
Many Montana school districts started class this week.
School supplies lists for students included the normal things – pencils, notebooks, maybe even some glue sticks.
But no district is requiring cat litter.
Still, Montana’s top state education official, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, has repeated unsubstantiated claims of school districts across Montana providing litterboxes for students who see themselves as cats and would prefer them to toilets.
Public education leaders in Montana said the unfounded allegation is “nonsense” and intended to create distrust in the public school system.
Those kinds of dubious allegations also mirror a larger national narrative-gone-wild, bordering on urban legend, about schools providing litterboxes in bathrooms as a means of accommodating demanding students and parents. The rumor is connected to a larger conversation in schools about gender, sexuality and bathrooms.
However, the Montana Free Press reported on Monday at least two cases of where Arntzen, a Republican, former state legislator and former kindergarten teacher from Billings, has doubled down on the rumor of litterboxes being provided by Montana school districts.
Arntzen on an Aug. 15 radio program, Voices of Montana, said she wanted to talk about “litterboxes that some schools are putting out.”
When radio talk show host Tom Schultz asked her for more details, she confirmed that she had evidence of litterboxes in schools in Montana. Furthermore, she said the state’s Office of Public Instruction was looking into it.
“Of course we are,” Arntzen said.
But officials with OPI told the Daily Montanan they’re not.
When asked for specific evidence of districts offering litterboxes, Anna Hoerner, the deputy communications director for OPI, said the office could not investigate because it did not have the authority.
“OPI has the authority to investigate complaints of educator misconduct but has received no actionable complaints,” Hoerner said. “OPI does not have authority over sanitation issues, which rests with local school boards, local boards of health and the DPHHS.”
The Daily Montanan asked follow-up questions of the office, including the scope of any investigation the OPI has undertaken, and why Arntzen said the district had evidence.
“It is the Superintendent’s firm belief that concerns brought to her or the agency by Montana students, parents, teacher, administrators and citizens should be respectfully considered and may constitute evidence,” Hoerner said.
When asked for clarification on how the office determined the difference between a parent concern versus evidence, neither Hoerner nor the office replied. The Daily Montanan also asked what the department or Arntzen’s role was in spreading misinformation or disinformation.
While Hoerner did not respond directly to the question, she asserted, “The Superintendent believes the ongoing discussion is a distraction from the important mission of delivering a quality education to our students.”
Still, Hoerner mentioned that Arntzen had heard from “multiple” people across the state about the concern. On radio programs, callers from Miles City and West Glacier both brought up the concern.
“Miles City Schools DO NOT provide litter boxes, nor do we have any plans to,” said Miles City Superintendent Meghan Brown in a written email response.
West Glacier, an elementary school near Essex, does not start school until Sept. 5, and the teacher-led school was not available for comment.
The only other “report” was an anonymous one the Office of Public Instruction declined to identify.
OPI also suggested that it wasn’t the job of the department to investigate, rather the responsibility of local school boards and the Department of Public Health and Human Services.
Jon Ebelt, a spokesman for Montana DPHHS, pointed to state law that said local or county health departments would investigate sanitation complaints and compliance. However, he confirmed that DPHHS has not received a single complaint regarding litterboxes in public schools.
Lance Melton, the chief executive for the Montana School Board Association, said that among his members, there’s never been a report or investigation. He said the only thing that came close was two years ago when the rumor of litterboxes first started spreading across social media and talk shows. At that time, one administrator reached out worried that districts may have to install the feline floorpans.
This week, Melton responded emphatically that it wasn’t a trend, requirement or even possible.
He said that installing litterboxes, even if a school wanted to consider such a thing, would violate all kinds of building codes and sanitary restrictions. Melton said that even though Arntzen claims her office doesn’t have the power to investigate alleged cases of litterboxes, even allowing them may violate several laws and violating laws can lead to a loss of licensure for educators.
“Her office has jurisdiction, and her employees have license jurisdiction. I would think she could look into that,” he said. “How do you even respond to something that is intended to leave lingering suspicion and create a sense of distrust of the public education system?”
Jeff Havens is a registered sanitarian in six different states, including Montana. He’s also been a science teacher and a college laboratory instructor. He scoffed at the idea of litterboxes in schools, pointing out that it would violate all kinds of rules.
For example, Havens pointed out that any school receiving federal USDA hot lunches has to have adequate sanitary sewers. Cat litter, he said, only masks the smell but does not treat animal — or human — waste.
So that waste would have to be taken care of some other way.
“Who would you get to do that?” he wondered. “This isn’t 1823, it’s 2023. And even then they knew something about how to dispose of human waste. This sounds a lot like a lie that got big, kind of like the stolen 2020 Election thing.”
The Daily Montanan also contacted the state’s largest union that represents most teachers in public education. The Montana Federation of Public Employees said “emphatically” that it has never heard the complaint lodged seriously in a Montana school, nor have any of its members raised a concern about it.
“While Elsie is out spouting nonsense, Montana’s educators are welcoming students back to our public schools for another year of learning,” said MFPE President Amanda Curtis. “And in 16 months, we hope to see a new superintendent who embodies the highest ideas of public education.”
Urban legend gone viral
The origin of the litterbox in schools claim is closely related to the debate about unisex bathrooms or accommodations for transgender students.
Indeed, on a radio program earlier this month, Arntzen coupled the two together saying, “Let’s talk about boys in girls’ bathrooms and that safety issue. Let’s talk about those litterboxes that some schools are putting out for children who want to view themselves as some sort of animal.”
Not so unlike other popular fear-mongering around cultural-war issues like gay marriage, the litterbox legend is an attempt at a “slippery slope” argument, according to the popular website Snopes.com, which investigates urban legends and rumors, separating fact from fiction.
The site has several articles dedicated to the persistent myth of litterboxes in school. It notes that some of this comes from the subculture of “furries” or, people or students who dress up like animals or adopt an online avatar.
A researcher at Utah State University told Snopes that originally the litterbox fantasy may have started years ago as a way to mock furries enthusiasts, questioning how far they may take their animal-like behavior. Somewhere along the way, though, the notion transformed into a persistent tale told second-hand about districts that went to great lengths to placate special interests.
Snopes tracked the specific litterbox resurgence to a 2021 school board meeting in Midland, Michigan, where an aggrieved resident referenced a second-hand rumor of a litterbox being installed in a bathroom. School officials and the board emphatically denied it, and the woman has never provided evidence. However, members of the state Republican Party grabbed hold of the rumor, which explained its re-emergence and migration from the world of fantasy to school bathrooms.
Snopes author Bethania Palma described this way:
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