Kokomo School Corporation officials spent this week responding to allegations it was installing litter boxes at the high school, following a satirical post on Facebook.
The site called The Kokomo Press posted Tuesday morning a screenshot of a fake email informing Kokomo High School staff about a new policy for students who identify as part animal, with the subject line “OtherKin Policy.”
Otherkin are people who identify as not entirely human. They may identify as animals or fictional or mythical characters.
The email stated litter boxes would be provided in restrooms, among additional accommodations for otherkin students, including time between classes for “free movement on all fours.”
Though the Kokomo Press is a satire site, plenty of people replied to the post believing it to be true. As of Friday afternoon, it had been shared 11,000 times.
On Wednesday, the post went national with fact-checking sites weighing in. Snopes debunked the post and USA Today Fact Check replied to the Kokomo Press saying the claims were false.
Kokomo Superintendent Mike Sargent said the ordeal was a non-issue among students who knew immediately the post wasn’t true.
“Our teachers spend a lot of time helping students verify information on the internet,” he said. “This wasn’t even a conversation at our school.”
There were multiple giveaways the email was fake.
The email associated Kokomo High School with the “Howard Consolidated School Systems INC.”
There were grammatical mistakes in the body of the email. Page links on the left-hand side of the email included phrases meant to get a rise out of people, such as, “Mascot Bigotry?” “Critical Race Theory” and “Religion Not Allowed.”
“It was something that was clearly satire from a page that says it,” Sargent said.
Other posts about litter boxes in schools and students identifying as animals have been common in recent weeks online.
Almost every rumor includes the same core proponents: children identifying as animals, usually cats or dogs, and schools allowing those students to use litter boxes.
Sargent said school staff spent time Tuesday and Wednesday responding to calls and emails about the post. While the superintendent was happy to clear up the confusion, he said some people were rude and accusatory.
The most frustrating part, however, was time was lost educating students while responding to a fake post, Sargent said.
While the Kokomo Press post was meant to antagonize people online, other posts of the same material have a more sinister intent, according to disinformation experts and LGTBQ advocates.
Disinformation is the deliberate spreading of false material and is often highly coordinated, according to Paul Cook, an English professor at Indiana University Kokomo.
“The crucial distinction is to deceive,” he said.
The term falls under the broader category of problematic information. Other forms of problematic information include misinformation and satire.
Misinformation is the unintentional sharing of false information. A common example is people who post some iteration of “I do not give Facebook permission to use my information.”
“This is the problem on Facebook,” Cook said. “This is the problem on right-wing Facebook.”
The professor said problematic information is often used as “an overarching attempt to really drive a particular outcome, especially politically.”
Claims and rumors of children identifying as animals has a harmful effect on transgender people and kids, according to LGTBQ advocates.
Keenan Crow of One Iowa, a LGBTQ advocacy group, told the Iowa Capital Dispatch that posts about kids using litter boxes falsely equivocates furries and transgender people.
“The real goal with comparing furries to trans people and bringing up stuff like this is, one, to make fun of furries and say, ‘Oh, aren’t they so silly. And oh, by the way, transgender identities are just as silly as this. And we should reject the request of a transgender student to use the restroom that matches their gender identity, in the same way that we should reject a student request to use a litter box,’’’ Crow told the independent news outlet.
Furries don’t identify as animals. It’s more of a role-playing concept.
Crow said it isn’t a coincidence that these types of rumors are popping up at a time when conservative state legislatures are debating and passing anti-LGTBQ bills.
The Tribune reached out to local group Kokomo Pride for comment, but officials didn’t respond as of Friday evening.
Undermining public education
Brooke Binkowski, managing editor of Truth or Fiction, a fact-checking website, said claims of schools installing litter boxes, indoctrinating students or exposing them to pornographic material are disinformation tactics by the political right meant to gin up outrage and scare parents.
One of the goals, she said, is what KHS officials dealt with — nasty phone calls from people. This makes school days more difficult for staff and diverts time away from teaching and more important matters. Ultimately, the academic success of students suffers.
The purpose of disinformation against public schools is to vilify them and paint them as an enemy. Binkowski said this is one of the intentions behind false claims about litter boxes and CRT in schools.
“What they’re doing is telling people … who to target,” she said. “They’re giving them instructions.”
Legislation then follows to address these made-up issues, such as banning CRT, divisive concepts and transgender kids from athletics.
Binkowski believes it is a way to ultimately privatize schools.
“The end goal, I think, is taking away public schools,” she said.
A perpetuating cycle
Disinformation works in a circle. Claims circulate online and are parroted by pundits and politicians. When concerned citizens mention these rumors in public settings, the same people use it as evidence that the rumors are true. The cycle then perpetuates itself.
“It’s the same dynamic, the same pattern and it’s the same people,” Binkowski said.
This was seen at a Midland Public Schools board meeting in Michigan, where a public commenter said they heard one of the schools was allowing kids to use litter boxes.
The soundbite went viral, despite the school’s superintendent saying it wasn’t true. Michigan Republican Party Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock shared it with the caption “Parent heroes will TAKE BACK our schools.”
Libs of Tik Tok, an influential right-wing account on Twitter and Tik Tok, also shared the clip framing it to be true. Libs of Tik Tok has a history of anti-trans and anti-LGTBQ posts.
Christina Pushaw, press secretary of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, said Libs of Tik Tok helped inform her views on the state’s legislation that banned discussion of sexuality or gender identity in kindergarten through third grade, according to a Washington Post report.