This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday. It was originally published there under the headline ‘Say What?’
“It’s imperative that we talk about these challenging issues. Let’s talk about boys in girls bathrooms and that safety issue. Let’s talk about those litter boxes that some schools are putting out for children who want to view themselves as some sort of an animal. Is this where public education should be? I say no.”
—State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, speaking about culture war issues in public schools during an Aug. 15 interview on Voices of Montana radio.
Over the past two years, Republican lawmakers and parental rights activists throughout the country have claimed that certain schools offered litter boxes for students who identified as cats — an allegation wielded in the broader debate over school policies that support students who are exploring their gender identities. School officials have routinely debunked such claims, prompting retractions from podcast host Joe Rogan and from a conservative state lawmaker in Nebraska. The nonprofit education news outlet EdWeek characterized the claims as a “disruptive and demeaning hoax.”
During the interview with Voices of Montana host Tom Schultz, Arntzen, who is exploring a run for Montana’s eastern district congressional seat, said explicitly that the controversy has become an issue in the public school system she oversees:
Schultz: “Do we have evidence of litter boxes in Montana schools?”
Arntzen: “Yes sir.”
Schultz: “Okay. Looking into it?”
Arntzen: “Of course we are.”
MTFP followed up with the Office of Public Instruction for more details. According to government liaison Tara Boulanger, Arntzen’s statements were based on claims made to her by Montana citizens during community forums and radio interviews in December 2022, as well as a report to OPI by a “rural Montana community member who requested to remain anonymous.” Asked if Arntzen or the agency had substantiated any of those allegations, Boulanger replied, “The reports were not investigated because no formal complaints were filed.”
Lance Melton, executive director of the Montana School Boards Association, said his organization is unaware of “any instance whatsoever where any school district in the state has contemplated doing this.” He added that the association fields “in excess of 7,000 calls” per year from districts requesting legal advice, saying the only mention he recalled of litter boxes occurred two years ago. The association, he said, advised the inquiring district that state law makes no reference to protections for students seeking such access.
As for the suggestion that any districts in Montana currently offer litter boxes to students, Melton said, “It’s just ludicrous.”