Fact check: Nebo School District responds to claims about student protest over ‘furries’

A district spokesperson said the protest seemed to be organized after a message sent to families was misinterpreted.

(Google Maps) Administrative offices for the Nebo School District, as shown in 2023.

Video of middle schoolers walking out of a Nebo School District school in Payson on Wednesday quickly spread in conservative social media circles, with posts claiming the students were protesting because the district was allowing student “furries” to “terrorize” other students.

Conservative radio host Adam Bartholomew, who shared video of the walkout to X, wrote in a post that the student who organized the protest told him student “furries” were biting, scratching and spraying “human repellent” at other students, “and when a student retaliates they are the one who gets suspended.”

Nebo School District spokesperson Seth Sorenson said that claim was false. He also said students at the middle school are not wearing full-body animal costumes to class, as “furries” — part of a subculture of people who sometimes dress up like animal characters but act like humans — are known to do.

But by about 4 p.m. Wednesday, Bartholomew’s video and claims had been picked up and spread by Libs of TikTok, an account on X that shares anti-LGBTQ posts and other clips geared at generating right-wing outrage. Bartholomew is married to Cari Bartholomew, who is running as a far-right candidate for the Utah State Board of Education in District 13.

“Students claim that the furries bite them, bark at them, and pounce on them without repercussion,” the Libs of TikTok post read. “However, if they defend themselves in any way, they get in trouble.”

Dismissing those claims, Sorenson said the Wednesday protest seemed to be organized after a message the school sent to families last week was misinterpreted.

School’s message encouraged ‘respect,’ official said

The message was sent after a group of students had been targeting another group of students, saying things “that were overheard by others that the administration felt were inappropriate and shouldn’t be said,” Sorenson said.

The group of students being targeted, he added, were students who sometimes come to school wearing headbands “that may have ears on them.” He said doesn’t think the targeted students necessarily refer to themselves as “furries.”

“These are pretty young kids,” he said. “You’ll have students that show up with headbands and giant bows; you’ll have students that show up dressed as their favorite basketball player, or baseball player. That’s just what kids this age do.”

In one specific instance, the targeted students “were sitting in a corner of the lunchroom, eating as a group of friends” when others began calling them names and throwing food at them “because they were dressed differently,” Sorenson told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday, providing more details about the situation.

After word of the altercation spread, the school sent an initial message to families last Friday, stating, “We expect ALL students to be respectful towards each other while we are here at school.”

“We hope you will treat others how you would like to be treated,” the message stated. “Outstanding behavior might demonstrate curiosity, understanding, patience and tolerance.”

The note continued, “One of our goals is to ensure that you are able to come to school, each day to learn the academic curriculum and appropriate citizenship. As responsible citizens, we hope you will look out for each other, take care of each other and treat each other with kindness.”

The message reiterated both the school’s dress code policy, as well as the school’s policy against written, verbal, or physical acts that stand to threaten, humiliate or abuse others.

But Sorenson said he thinks some parents misinterpreted the note, incorrectly taking it as a message that the school was “taking the side of a single group, saying, ‘We want you to be kind to this group, but they don’t have to be kind to anyone else.’”

“Nobody was taking the side of one group or another,” he said. “What we were saying is everyone needs to treat everyone else with respect.”

Sorenson said some upset parents took to social media instead of discussing the issue with the school district. On Sunday, a Change.org petition was created, titled “Students for Humans at School, not animals aka furries,” demanding that the district enforce its dress code. The online petition had garnered more than 1,500 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.

School sends second message to clarify ‘misunderstandings’

On Tuesday, the school sent another message to parents, trying to clarify its original note.

“We have had several parents reach out to us over the past few days, regarding rumors that are being spread about behaviors of a small group of students at our school,” the message read. “We hoped our efforts to clarify misconceptions would be sufficient, but it seems we still have some misunderstandings.”

The note went on to quote the Friday message, and concluded with an acknowledgement of rumored plans of a walkout protest Wednesday.

“While students may exercise their freedom of expression, disruptions to the school day will be handled as needed,” the message read, citing district policy.

The student protest ultimately came together Wednesday after some parents pulled their children from school, Sorenson said.

Moving forward, Sorenson said the district plans “to stay the course,” aiming to “foster a respectful school community.”

“We hope that rather than parents just reaching out on social media and posting, that they’ll actually reach out to the school and have conversations,” Sorenson said, adding that the district “would love nothing more than to engage in those conversations and find solutions that will make everybody happy.”