CORTEZ, Colo. — Lance McDaniel thought a box of pizza for a small group of LGBTQ+ Montezuma-Cortez Middle School students and their allies would help put a smile on the children's’ faces.
For months, McDaniel, then a member of the Montezuma-Cortez Board of Education, delivered pizza under the anonymous title “the pizza fairy” to the middle school’s Rainbow Club — a lunchtime opportunity for LGBTQ+ students and allies to gather in a safe space.
The move seemed innocuous to McDaniel — then the comments began flooding in.
Words like “groomer,” “pedophile” and “communist” started to fill the comments section under his Facebook posts, which largely consisted of liberal political commentary and school board notices.
McDaniel said he never received face-to-face threats, but some of his neighbors in the Four Corners-region school district continued their social media attacks after discovering he was “the pizza fairy.”
McDaniel and Monica Slabodnick — the Rainbow Club’s adult chaperone and a paraprofessional at Montezuma-Cortez Middle School — said McDaniel only came inside the classroom to meet the children in the club once, but that didn’t stop the vitriol.
Over the coming months, community members began filming him in public, McDaniel said. In October 2020, several people connected via Zoom to a school board meeting interrupted the meeting, and one person was heard threatening to rape McDaniel’s daughter, according to a news report by Cortez radio station KSJD.
Cortez Police Department Chief Vernon Knuckles told The Washington Post that the department was unable to determine who made the threats, and therefore unable to take action. Knuckles did not return calls for comment to Rocky Mountain PBS. According to the Post, Knuckles had earlier signed a petition seeking McDaniels' recall.
‘These kids need help’
After a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd in May 2020, McDaniel wrote “I’m antifa” on his Facebook page. To him, the phrase was simply a public condemnation of fascism, which he believed was on the rise after President Donald Trump’s election in 2016.
McDaniel said he also worried that fascism was on the rise in his own community, where a group known as the Montezuma County Patriots had circled a memorial for Floyd and played loud country music while trucks with American flags and thin blue line flags sped around.
McDaniel said his publicly stated liberal views often ran counter to those of his conservative neighbors and school board counterparts. In the 2020 presidential election, in which Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump, 60 percent of Montezuma County residents voted for Trump.
As a straight, cisgender, white man, McDaniel said he felt a sense of duty to stand up for marginalized members of his community, especially LGBTQ+ children, who he said have become a target of far-right attacks.
“These kids need help, and they deserve help and they deserve assistance in being themselves,” McDaniel said. “It’s just been very important to me.”
Two members of the Montezuma County Patriots declined to comment on behalf of the group. But Odis Sikes, a member of the group and candidate for Montezuma County Sheriff, recently told a group of attendees at a campaign event that he would put deputies in school board meetings to ensure teachers are not teaching critical race theory or LGBTQ+ issues.
While McDaniel was not shy about his liberal views, he said he believed his Facebook was representative of his personal views, not those of the school board. He also believed his views never impacted his decisions on the board.
But others in the community saw it differently.
In July 2020, Mindy Nelsen and Debbie McHenry, two county residents, organized a petition for a recall election to remove McDaniel from his school board seat.
Recall supporters said McDaniel had shown a lack of leadership and was a poor role model for students. McDaniel said the effort was started by conservatives who did not like his liberal views and who used “groomer” rhetoric to scare others in the community into recalling him.
By the October deadline for the petition, more than 1,600 voters signed off on the recall. McDaniel was then recalled in a February 2021 election by a 2-1 vote. Resident Cody Wells ran unopposed to fill McDaniel’s seat.
The Montezuma County Patriots does not have its own website. Because two members from the party declined an interview, it is difficult to discern what exactly the group believes, but several experts on right-wing extremism said Patriots groups are popping up across the country, and their beliefs are largely the same from group to group.
“The essence of their belief system is that the world is run by a sacred group of nefarious globalist conspirators who are trying to manipulate the world into enslavement,” said investigative journalist David Neiwert, author of “Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump.” “They’ve been fantasizing about civil war since the ‘90s, and it’s reached a head these days.”
Karrin Anderson, a communication studies professor at Colorado State University, said conspiracy theories and bigotry have always hidden under the surface of the Republican Party, but Trump’s election brought such talking points into the mainstream.
“Mainstream political actors on the right are kind of mixing extreme conspiracy theories or positions with mainstream ideas,” Anderson said. “Republicans are just becoming accustomed to hearing really extreme positions from their mainstream politicians and also from their friends and neighbors.”
Rachel Carroll Rivas, interim deputy director of research and analysis at the Southern Poverty Law Center’s intelligence project, said extremist groups like the Patriots have victimized LGBTQ+ people and their allies by claiming that they are hurting children.
“We see that attacks on LGBTQ people have used this idea of being threatening to children,” Carroll Rivas said. “It’s completely false. It’s not based on facts; it's just an old tactic that’s been used to attack communities and ‘other’ them throughout history.”
While middle school years may be difficult for most people, being a 14-year-old transgender boy at Montezuma-Cortez Middle School in a rural, mostly conservative area had been particularly difficult for Jack Hough.
Hough said many of his teachers refused to use his name and pronouns. The first time could have been an honest mistake, he said, but after several corrections from himself and his mother, Hough believed the teachers should have done a better job at trying to be respectful.
“At first I was sad, but when it kept happening, I got more mad,” Hough said. “It just sucked.”
Hough took comfort in knowing there was one place he could escape the bullying and be surrounded by kids and a teacher who respected him and his identity: Monica Slabodnick’s Rainbow Club.
Slabodnick, a now-retired paraprofessional at the middle school, started the Rainbow Club in 2017 after a group of kids approached her and asked if she’d be willing to start a lunchtime club for LGBTQ+ students and allies. After a year of back-and-forth communication with the school board and school administrators, the club finally took off.
Students in the club could drop by, eat a slice of pizza and enjoy 30 minutes to be themselves without fear of being bullied.
“They were sweet, innocent kids who just wanted to hang out and feel supported,” Slabodnick said. “We have a good amount of faculty on board who do not actively support these students, and the kids are astute enough to figure out pretty quickly who is and is not supportive to them.”
Throughout the club’s first year, Slabodnick said she was bombarded with questions from other teachers about how kids could understand their identities at such a young age and accusations that adults involved with the club were behaving inappropriately.
“I said, ‘This is middle school. They’re exploring, they’re questioning, they may not be gay, but many of them just want to support [their LGBTQ+ classmates] and let you know that if you are gay, they’ll be your friend,” Slabodnick said.
Slabodnick hung up a transgender pride flag, a bisexual pride flag, several generic rainbow flags and a sign that read “Black Lives Matter” in the classroom where the club met.
Shortly after putting the flags up, Principal Drew Pearson asked Slabodnick to take them down, claiming the school’s superintendent and the school district’s attorney recommended teachers “not have such items in public areas of the building,” according to emails between Pearson and Slabodnick obtained by Rocky Mountain PBS.
Slabodnick then told Pearson that she had face-to-face meetings with every other teacher who used the room and they agreed to use other classrooms, so Slabodnick left the flags up.
After leaving school on Jan. 13, 2021, Slabodnick said she noticed the flags were removed from the wall, and Pearson had taken them down. Pearson later referred to the flags as “inflammatory icons,” according to the emails.
In an email to Slabodnick, Pearson wrote:
“I had multiple complaints from staff yesterday in a team meeting. As you and I discussed previously this year, after my conversation with the Superintendent, Asst. Superintendent and our school attorney it was determined these type of “inflammatory icons” are not to be placed in common places in the building. This is a shared space and not your room therefore it would qualify as such."
“I will ask again that you refrain from placing these items in public locations within the school. I understand that this is supportive of the ideals of your group, but it is not of the ideals of all students or adopted ideals of the district as approved by the board of education,” the email continued.
Sara Neel, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, said whether or not Pearson asking Slabodnick to take the flags down is legal depends on if the school prohibits flags with any sort of messaging, or only flags showing LGBTQ+ support.
“If the school is saying everyone who has a pride flag must take those down, but other teachers have flags displayed that are supportive of other issues, that could be a First Amendment violation,” Neel said. “Teachers certainly don’t leave their First Amendment rights at the door, and the government can’t tell people to relinquish their rights as a condition of being a public employee.”
Pearson declined to comment on the flags, and forwarded an interview request to Superintendent Tom Burris.
Burris declined to grant a phone interview, but wrote the following in an email:
“Montezuma-Cortez School District utilizes a nondiscriminatory practice with regard to classroom displays. Staff members are permitted to have small mementos and images in their personal workspace. However, such items are limited in size, and personal expressions such as flags, posters, and the like are not to be distracting or intended to influence or disrupt classroom activities.”