A Michigan superintendent had to refute a wild rumor that a litter box was provided in a school bathroom for students who identify as cats last week after a video of a parent raising the claim at a school board meeting spread on social media.
"It is unconscionable that this afternoon I am sending this communication," Midland Public Schools Superintendent Michael Sharrow wrote in a community message Thursday. "There is no truth whatsoever to this false statement/accusation! There have never been litter boxes within MPS schools."
The claim was raised by a parent named Lisa Hansen during the public comment portion of the district's Board of Education meeting Dec. 20. In her remarks, Hansen said that she planned to comment on county COVID-19 testing protocols for schools but that she needed to first address something else: furries.
"Yesterday I heard something, and I was stunned, and today I am equally stunned and a little bit upset. Well, not a little bit, a lot a bit upset — furious; I would even use that word," Hansen said. "I heard that at least one of our schools in our town has a, in one of the unisex bathrooms, a litter box for the kids that identify as cats. And um, I am really disturbed by that."
She continued that she planned to "do some more investigation" into the issue, but it was a problem that was happening nationwide, and said she was really upset "that [her] child is put in an environment like that."
"This whole furry thing has just got me," Hansen said. "I’m staying calm, but I'm not happy about it, and it’s happened on your watch, and I don't understand it."
Furries, of course, are people who like to dress up and role-play as large, anthropomorphic animals. The subculture is sometimes misunderstood as odd or dangerous, but furries say they're a community — not a fetish. And while they do identify as the cartoonish animals they dress up as, they don't pee and poop in litter boxes.
Hansen did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News' requests for comment Sunday, but Sharrow said in an email that district officials made contact with her when the meeting ended and told her that the scenario she described was not true.
"We knew the accusations of a litter box is outrageous, and we never heard such a thing before," he told BuzzFeed News.
But that wasn't enough to stop the rumor from making the rounds online. On Tuesday, a Facebook user shared a link to the board meeting video, directing people to Hansen's comments, in a local conservative group. Then, on Thursday, Meshawn Maddock, cochair of the Michigan Republican Party, shared the post on her page, repeating the false claim and saying, "Parent heroes will TAKE BACK our schools."
It comes as school board meetings have become a battleground for right-wing activists who have weaponized issues from wearing masks to protecting transgender students into a new culture war.
In a text message to BuzzFeed News on Sunday, Maddock said "just because the superintendent says it’s false does not make it false," and then suggested talking with parents whose children "have said otherwise." She did not respond to a request to connect a reporter with those individuals.
Sharrow said Maddock's post and others prompted "a lot of false information" about the district.
"It is such a source of disappointment that I felt the necessity to communicate this message to you," he wrote in the message to the school district community. "In this divisive/contentious world in which we currently find ourselves, I ask that if you hear wild accusations that don’t sound like something in which your Midland Public Schools Board of Education, Administration, District would be part, take a moment to send an MPSConnect message to me."