A right-wing, fully debunked smear about “students identifying as cats” spread further up the disinformation chain in late September 2022, going from local school gossip to statements from Republican gubernatorial candidates:
“What are we doing to our kids?” Jensen asked his supporters, before using the occasion to attach a transphobic remark to his false claim. “Why are we telling elementary kids that they get to choose their gender this week? Why do we have litter boxes in some of the school districts so kids can pee in them, because they identify as a furry? We’ve lost our minds. We’ve lost our minds.”
Jensen, a former state senator, is running to unseat incumbent Democrat Tim Walz. He, like every other person making the claim, has not provided evidence of “litter boxes” in school districts. This refusal to provide proof is another standard feature of this type of disinformation attack, which has circulated in the U.S. and abroad. Typically the official involved will attribute it to second-hand chatter and claim that it represents a concern in their community.
Such has been the case for Colorado gubernatorial candidate Heidi Gahahl, who first pushed the false claim in a radio interview:
Yeah, kids identifying as cats. It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but it’s happening all over Colorado and schools are tolerating it. It’s insane. What on earth are we doing? Knock it off, schools. Put your foot down. Like, stop it. Let’s get back to teaching basics and not allow this woke ideology, ideological stuff, infiltrate our schools. And it is happening here in Colorado. It’s why I moved from Boulder Valley to Douglas County, because it was happening in my kids schools four years ago.
As Denver news outlet KUSA-TV reported, she subsequently doubled down on this claim in an October 2 2022 TV interview.
“I just heard from over 100 parents identifying thirty different schools that this is happening,” she claimed, without offering any evidence. “Jefferson County, there’s a lot of this going on.”
But just a day later, officials in that county’s school district along with two others and the Denver Public Schools system itself debunked her argument.
“There is absolutely no truth to this claim,” officials in Jefferson County told the station. “There are no litter boxes in our buildings and students are not allowed to come to school in costume.”
KUSA reporter Kyle Clark also pointed out on Twitter that Ganahl’s campaign “directed” him to a parents’ group that first blocked him on the platform before telling him to contact local schools:
He also noted that, as his station reported in October 2017, some Jefferson County schools do have buckets with kitty litter on the grounds, but not for “furries” — they are there to be used in the event that students are locked inside their classrooms because of a school shooting attack:
In some Colorado schools, teachers are asking parents to bring in buckets filled with kitty litter to act as a toilet if children are trapped in their classrooms during lockdowns.
Called “go buckets,” these human litter boxes have been added to the school supply lists for teachers at Jeffco Public Schools in Denver.
In an interview with Insider, Diana Wilson, a spokeswoman for Jeffco Public Schools, said the idea for the go buckets came after a prolonged lockdown several years ago at Alameda High School.
In that case, the threat of an armed gunman turned out to be false, but students couldn’t leave their classes until police had cleared every room in the building. That process can take hours, and in the Alameda case, Wilson said students were forced to relieve themselves in trash bags.
The spread of “litter box” disinformation has been attributed to remarks by right-wing Nebraska state Sen. Sen. Bruce Bostelman that spread in a video posted online. In March 2022 Bostelman backtracked on the claim and acknowledged it was false.
In October 2022 NBC News reporter Tyler Kinkade compiled a Twitter thread of more right-wing political figures pushing the lie, including Ohio State Board of Education member Brendan Shea:
The network also corroborated the account of Jefferson County’s “go buckets” in a separate story. NBC also spoke to some teenagers who take part in the furries subculture, all of whom debunked the bogus claim.
“I have never once heard a furry say they want to use a litter box,” said 14-year-old Kymera, who attends school in Colorado. “These rumors put us at risk of being hurt or bullied.”
Update 10/14/2022, 11:08 a.m. PST: Updated to reflect further corroboration of the use of “go buckets” in some Colorado schools, not for students identifying as “furries” but for use in case of a mass shooting attack. — ag