Fifteen-year-old Kate just lost her mom. On top of that, her learning disabilities are making it hard to go to school. She’s missed so much that the school says she might get sent away to a residential treatment center hundreds of miles away. But her grandparents are fighting hard for their right to keep her home.

A warning, this episode includes references to violence and suicide. Please take care when listening. And if you’re struggling, call Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

 

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[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]

 

Melodie Edwards: After my daughter dropped out of high school, she signed up for a free program at the community college to prepare her to take the high school equivalency test — what most people call the GED. It’s hard to say what the long-term ramifications will be of dropping out, but right now, she’s doing okay. I gotta say, this program is one of the better school experiences she’s had. And that’s saying something because when my kids were little, a group of moms and I created a Montessori Charter School. Until my kids were in fifth grade, they learned in a self-directed classroom with lots of hands-on materials and outdoor time. For middle school, they went to a school that used a project-based learning approach: their math, science, English or social studies classes all focused on one subject. One semester they studied the science of garbage, the next, the Silk Road. Neither school used grades or homework or tests to motivate kids. Both of my children loved learning in these schools. 

But when they got to high school, their interests lagged. Raising twins has always been a study in contrasts but especially in their teens. One child could still pull in straight A’s even though her classes were often uninspiring. 

The other child? Not so much. 

Her attention issues and anxiety have always made tests especially challenging for her, so I wasn’t sure how getting her GED would go. But the program is run by two instructors who both share her learning disability and know what she’s going through. So far, she’s passed three of the five parts of the test. Last week, she took the math part. She came home in tears, sure she’d failed it. But her teachers didn’t lecture her, didn’t say ‘Come on, get back on that horse.’ They were reassuring, kind, never shaming. In fact, they said she has two more chances to take it. The next morning, she rushed out the door, totally motivated to meet with her teachers and get extra tutoring to take it again. We just found out she passed it after all. We celebrated with steaks and brownie sundaes. Now, we’re waiting to hear whether she passed the last section, science.

I don’t know if my daughter will end up going to college. She says she wants to be a marine biologist when she grows up. But it might take a while to recover from her negative experience at the high school. To purge some of the ideas of herself as a bad kid, as lazy. To get over living in an environment that’s skeptical of your diagnosis. 

But it’s a relief, as her mom, to see her fingers almost touching her goal, a team of instructors behind her that don’t think of her as that kid, or your kid. They treat her like she’s our kid.

For our final episode of Cowboy Up, Tennessee Watson is taking us to Cody, Wyoming to meet a teenager facing a lot of the same things as my daughter but without a lot of the safety nets. 

 

Grandma’s House

 

Tennessee Watson: Bonnie and Bob live in a white house with a white picket fence just a few blocks off the main drag in Cody, Wyoming. There’s a sweet black and white cat in the yard, and Bonnie welcomes me at the door. She’s a petite woman in her 70s with blonde, shoulder-length hair. She gestures for me to come in, and the kitty, Irene, is right on my heels. 

Bonnie goes off to tell her granddaughter I’ve arrived. Her husband Bob takes my coat. They’re easygoing and warm. 

“Would you like something to drink? Would you like some water? Pepsi?” Bob offers. 

“No thanks,” I say, “too many things in my hands.”

“Well, I could give you a straw!” Bonnie says with a laugh. 

The living room has a comfy couch, a recliner, a rocking chair and a big TV. The mantle is covered in family photos. Classic grandparent vibes. 

I’m here because Bonnie reached out to me. Last March, she called me after hearing my juvenile justice reporting on her local public radio station. She told me her 15-year-old granddaughter, Kate, was having a really hard time at school and local law enforcement were getting involved. I told her I’d come to Cody as soon as I could.

 

Stones & Snake Skins

 

A week after that call, I’m in Bonnie and Bob’s living room, eager to talk to their granddaughter about what she’s going through. 

“I don’t know if she’ll come out,” Bonnie says. “I’ll go check on her. She’s worried and says, ‘I don’t know what all to say. There’s a lot to it.’”

But they’re not sure Kate will come out of her room to talk to me. 

“I asked her if it would be okay if Tennessee came back and talked to you in your room,” says Bob. “She said, ‘Yeah, that’d be fine. Oh yeah, that’d be great.’” 

As Bonnie leads me through the house to Kate’s room she says, “I know she wants to talk to you. She wants to help.”

Kate’s room is tiny and I’m not sure Bonnie, Bob, Kate and I can all fit. “Are we all coming in?” I ask. 

“We’ll leave you two alone,” says Bonnie. “Or do you want us to stay?” 

Kate shrugs and says, “I don’t really care.”

“How about just you and me hang out?” I say. 

I sit down across from a kid with black, swoopy hair and chunky, black-rimmed glasses. She’s wearing a Green Day t-shirt. Her tiny room is packed with stuff all purposefully organized. 

“Tell me about your rocks,” I say.

“Well, I have them organized sort of by color. I want to keep the biggest ones in the back and the smallest ones up front because I like displaying them, mostly for myself,” Kate says. 

“What’s the thing in the front that looks almost like a snake’s skin?”

“That is a snake skin,” Kate says. “I also collect bones and stuff.”

And there are mason jars full of colorful beads and art supplies, and behind her bed is a shelf full of cassette tapes. 

“I’m really curious about your tapes,” I say.

“Oh, those were my mom’s,” Kate says. “I want to be able to listen to them at some point someday. But right now they’re just kind of around.”

I scan the tapes and most of them are punk bands I listened to when I was Kate’s age. Cody is a pretty conservative town. I imagine this punky kid in her Green Day t-shirt and her punk rock mom probably had a special bond.

“I’m sorry to hear everything that you’re going through,” I tell her. 

“It’s fine. As fine as it gets at least.” 

“Do you think you’ll go to school tomorrow?”

“I hope so,” she says. “Sort of. I don’t feel ready. But I’m hoping I’m capable just so that things don’t get any worse.” 

 

A Really Hard Year

 

Cody High School

Photo by Kamila Kudelska

 

Kate has a hard time going to school, and if her attendance doesn’t improve, she knows a judge could place her in a facility where she has to go to school. That’d be another layer of heartbreak in what’s already been a really hard year. (A quick word about names. I’m not using this family’s last name, and the name Kate is an alias to protect her privacy because she’s under 18.)  

So the story of how Kate came to live with her grandparents starts in April of 2020. 

Kate’s in eighth grade. She and her mom, Jennifer, Bonnie’s daughter, lived just a couple minutes down the road in a neighborhood on the edge of town near the Shoshone River. Jennifer was a single mom. For a living, she managed a cell phone store, and Bonnie says her daughter worked a lot to make ends meet, so she didn’t always have a lot of time to spend with Kate. But Bonnie says Jennifer made sure to support Kate’s creativity and curiosity. There were always books and art supplies in the house, and Jennifer loved to read to her daughter.  

But on a chilly Friday morning, Bonnie remembers getting a call from Kate who said something happened to her mom. In the middle of the night, Kate thought she heard a noise. 

“She got up to go to the bathroom, and she looked down in her room, and she said she looked fine. She was asleep, nothing was happening. So she went back to bed.” 

But her mom wasn’t ok. 

“In the morning, her mom didn’t wake her up in time, and she went in there, and she just said, ‘Mom’s not moving. I don’t want to go in there. I don’t know what’s wrong.’ So I went down,” Bonnie remembers. “She’d been dead for a couple of hours. There was nothing to do.”

Kate’s mom had epilepsy, and Bonnie thinks she likely had a seizure 

“So it was hard. Very hard.” 

After her mom died, Kate moved in with her grandparents. And their relationship was immediately tested by the COVID-19 pandemic. School had just shut down. So Bonnie and Bob, who are both in their mid-70s, did their best to help Kate go to school online, but it caused a lot of friction. Kate would get really frustrated, and Bonnie couldn’t figure out how to help. 

“She would just shut down,” says Bonnie. “She went and sat on her bed, and I couldn’t get her to do anything.”  

That summer, the home Kate shared with her mom went up for sale. Then in August, she turned 15 without her mom around to celebrate. Bonnie thought maybe once Kate could go back to school with her friends and her normal routines she might feel better. But that’s not what happened.

 

Unexcused Absences

 

“When she started, she missed the first day because she was stressed out,” Bonnie recalls. 

Kate seemed to pull it together the next couple of days, and then things got worse. 

“In one of her classes, she got stressed out and she left the classroom.”

It couldn’t have been more than a week into school, and Kate just stood up and left class, and she didn’t come back. Bonnie says she’d warned the school this might happen. But the school seemed surprised by just how stressed Kate got. 

“They called me, very upset, and said, ‘We can’t find her.’”

Her teacher was worried, so she called the guidance counselor, who called Bonnie

“I said, ‘I’ll come right down.’” 

En route to the school, Bonnie started getting text messages from Kate. 

“She was in the bathroom in a stall, upset, trying to text me,” Bonnie says. “And she said,  ‘Everyone is around me, and I don’t know what to do.’ Somebody was in the stall next to her on top of the toilet, looking over. The police officer was there. The bathroom had all kinds of echoes, and she was just hysterical.” 

That was Kate’s first panic attack at school, but there were more. Bonnie says the school did give Kate a designated place to go when she needed to take a break.

“Which was more like a closet, but she had a place to go, and she knew what to do.” 

 

A Scene At Walmart

 

Inside school, Kate was shutting down, but outside of school, she was getting into trouble. In October, she and some friends had a run in with the law at Walmart.

“It happened after school,” Bonnie remembers. “She asked me and they walked to Walmart.” 

Bonnie and Bob gave her $20 to treat herself and her friends. 

“But she said, [the other kids] wanted more. So it was suggested they just put it in their backpack. And of course, they got caught.”

Bonnie doesn’t remember exactly what they shoplifted. Maybe pony beads and colored pens. But what she remembers clearly is having to go to Walmart. 

“And the police were there,” Bonnie says. “Two of them at least, if not three, plus the officer that’s at Walmart.”

Local law enforcement decided not to press charges as long as Kate did some community service and wrote Walmart an apology letter

“And she said, ‘To Walmart and all the employees. I’m sorry. I know what I did was wrong. And I won’t do it again. And she signed her name.’” 

It was such a small theft, but it had big consequences.

On top of the letter and community service, Kate was put on probation. Remember Larissa Salazar’s story in the last episode? How the pressure of probation ate away at her, made it harder to do better? Well, Bonnie and Bob were worried that probation was setting Kate up to fail.

“She had to have no absences and no tardies, and she had to maintain a C or above.“

If she didn’t, she risked being taken away from the only family she had left and being sent to a juvenile facility.

 

“What’s Wrong With You?”

 

So now it’s April 2021, a year after Kate lost her mom, and Bonnie is really trying to get her to go to school, but it’s hard. Not just because of her mom’s death but also because Kate has ADHD and autism. I once heard someone say, when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. And Bonnie learned that pretty quickly. 

“I mean, I’d read things on the internet and books and this and that over these months, but nothing like being in the trenches with them,” Bonnie says. “And not getting lost in the moment and reacting badly. Because your instinct is, ‘What’s wrong with you? Get up and go to school!’” 

“And what is the thing you’re supposed to do? What have you learned?” I ask. 

“We can’t make her do what we want her to do and what everybody else seems to think [she should do],” says Bob.

“I think that’s what Mrs. Blatt thinks,” says Bonnie. Mrs. Blatt is the high school vice principal. “That we just were grandparents. We just didn’t make her go to school. And we just let her get away with it. And she was a spoiled brat, basically. Because she kind of indicated that a few times.”

But Bonnie is not just a grandma and a mom of three. She’s also a trained educator who ran a daycare out of her home for over 30 years. She tried implementing a consistent schedule and predictable routines, things she’d done for little kids who were stressed and anxious at daycare. But those things didn’t always work for Kate. 

“I think for people who don’t have autism, they may be projecting their own experience, you know? And say things like, ‘Well, it’s hard for me to do things too, but I just do it anyway,’” I say to Bonnie.

Bonnie nods in agreement. “Cowboy up and go,” she says. “And that is sort of the way, in the beginning when she started living here, I started treating the situation, although I was careful because of our recent loss. But honestly, until after the full diagnosis from the school, I just really didn’t get it all. I really thought she may have been putting us on or trying to have her own way.” 

But Bonnie started to recognize that Kate had a threshold: push too hard, even if it’s in a friendly tone, and she’ll start to shut down. It starts with a look on her face, and then she’ll pace and fuss with her hair. If it gets really bad, she’ll shake and scratch at herself. 

“I can tell from that look that she’s going to go,” Bonnie says. “I don’t want to get in a fight because if you try to keep talking to her about it, she’ll short out and start shaking and get upset, so you can only go so far.”

This kind of shutting down happens to kids with trauma, and definitely kids with autism, and for Kate, it’s a double whammy. She knows that if she doesn’t start going to school every day, she risks being taken away.

“Like going to school, everything would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that I’m getting in trouble for things that I can’t really do much about,” Kate says “Like being late to school, and I can’t exactly — I can’t entirely explain that because not a lot of stuff really changed. But I just started being late. And then, I start being, like, ‘Well, I don’t want to be late to school. So I’d rather just miss it, so that I’m not coming in and it feels awkward.’ And I really hate going in and having to talk to the vice principal. I can’t, that is terrible.”

The vice principal is Mrs. Blatt. 

“What is her vibe?” I ask. 

“Her vibe is, she said weird things,” Kate says. “Like, I remember one time I was trying to explain that I try my best to come to school on time and do good. And then she mentioned it later. And she says, ‘I’m going to try.’ And it was weird because I was like, ‘No, I am trying. I have been trying this whole time.’” 

Some people with autism focus on the literal meaning of words. So I get how hearing “You’re going to try,” which means it’s happening in the future, instead of hearing “You’re trying,” which means it’s happening now, would make Kate feel misunderstood. 

“And it’s like you have these responsibilities,” Kate says. “You have to do this or that or this will happen. And it’s just so frustrating, and I just hate it so much. So it makes it even worse. Like when I have to be late because then I have to face her and feel almost attacked by the school and stuff.”

“And that’s how you feel?” I ask. 

“Definitely.” 

And then in late March, a week before Bonnie called me, the family gets a text message from Mrs. Blatt 

“Okay, do you want to read me a message?” I say to Bonnie.

“Yeah, there’s actually two of them.” 

Mrs. Blatt starts off by saying she hopes that Kate is doing ok, but then the text takes a turn.

“She has now broken the contract at eleven absences,” Bonnie says, reading. “For the first period, she is over in absences now in all her classes with seven and eight. Then the next one said, ‘To add support, I’m sending information to the county attorney and DFS.’”

That’s because Kate has gone over the number of absences allowed by law, and so Mrs. Blatt is saying she’s going to report that information to the authorities. 

After that text, Bonnie contacts Kate’s probation agent who explains that because Kate had missed so much school, the family was now facing an educational neglect charge. That’s when parents and guardians are held accountable for not being able to get their kids to school. 

When I hear that text from Mrs. Blatt, part of me understands that a rule is a rule in part set up to protect kids. But at the same time, it’s so clear to me that Bob and Bonnie are trying their best. I couldn’t understand why a vice principal, someone in charge of making sure a kid gets through school and hopefully, graduates into the world prepared would take such an antagonistic approach. Especially when it seems clear that pushing Kate only seems to make her shut down more.

But then, on my drive home to Laramie, I had an experience that helped me gain some perspective on why kids who need help end up feeling punished. 

 

The Little Cow

 

I’m four hours into my six-hour drive home when I spot something on the side of the road. As I get closer, I realize the shape in the sagebrush is a calf. And it’s on the wrong side of the fence from the rest of the cows. I initially drive by it and think to myself, “Man, that’s sad” but something nags at my stomach, and I pull a uey. I get out and hit record on my equipment.

“Yeah, so this little cow,” I say. “I pulled over on the side of this road to see if I can help it get back to its mother. Are you stuck?” I ask the calf.

As I get closer, the calf starts ramming himself into the barbed fence trying to get through. 

“Hey, you’re okay,” I yell to the calf, and then say to myself, “It’s hard to figure out how to help things without scaring them.” 

I try talking in a soothing voice. “Hey, little cow!”

It’s hot, and the sun is high in the sky. I’m on Highway 287 somewhere between Muddy Gap and Rawlins, and I feel a little in over my head.

“My only hope is that maybe by walking down there, he’ll find a way to get through where it’s higher up.”

I get the calf moving down the fence line with my fingers crossed he doesn’t bolt into the road.

“This is so tricky. “

But I can tell I’m really freaking him out. He keeps looking back at me like, “Why is this crazy lady following me?” It’s at that moment that I spot a rattlesnake all coiled up and angry right at my feet. I jump about two feet in the air and screech.

“Okay, take a deep breath,” I tell myself. “You’re gonna be okay. I feel like I’ve reached my threshold for helpfulness.” 

My concerns for the little cow have taken a back seat to me getting back to pavement.  

“I feel better about just getting back in the car and, yeah, letting the cows figure it out on their own.”

Back in my car, I’m painfully aware of how deceptively difficult it is to actually help someone who’s scared. And that really makes me want to talk to Mrs. Blatt, the vice principal at Kate’s high school. 

 

Playing The Heavy

 

Entrance to Cody High School

Photo by Kamila Kudelska

 

I’m ringing the bell on the front door of the school when a woman rolls up in a Porsche convertible with the top down. 

“Are you Tennessee?”

“Yeah.”

“Hi, I’m Beth.” 

Beth Blatt is a tall woman in skinny jeans and a blue and white polka-dotted silk top. Mrs. Blatt is from California but moved to Cody with her husband almost 20 years ago. 

“We ended up in Wyoming thinking this would be an amazing place to raise kids. “

Sound familiar? But what about struggling kids? What’s school like in Wyoming for them? 

“Well, if you know the psychology behind the brain,” Mrs. Blatt says, “there are triggers in the brain that can shut down learning and part of that is anxiety, depression, hunger, belonging. There are all kinds of factors that can close the door to learning.”

This did not seem like the same woman who sent Bonnie a text message that she’d be reporting Kate’s absences to law enforcement. 

“And so I would argue that, once again, a safe environment where there’s love and support, and kids are fed as well, they have a safe place, that opens the door to learning. So you have a kid that’s sitting in a chair that has anxiety, and they don’t feel safe, you can be the most amazing mathematician, but it’s gonna be really tough to get through,” Mrs. Blatt says.

I went in expecting Mrs. Blatt to be out of step on the effects of childhood trauma. But her whole approach is very much informed by the science of learning and trauma and disabilities. Her willingness to admit that schools don’t always get this right surprises me. 

“You get this false sense of reality that you’re reaching everyone, but how do you really know?”

I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, you’re not reaching Kate.’ But as Mrs. Blatt keeps talking, I realize that’s not because she isn’t trying. She actually thinks a lot about how to keep kids from falling through the cracks. 

A couple years ago, Mrs. Blatt facilitated an activity for teachers to identify which students were being overlooked. She printed out pictures of all 600 Cody High students and put them up on the walls of the commons. Teachers were given stickers to put on photos of students they thought they knew well. 

“And then to walk around, just in silence or a little background music, and really reflect on how many lives teachers have touched.” 

But what she found out is a lot of kids don’t end up connecting to a teacher.

“I think there was a band of sophomore boys that year that had maybe one sticker. And there were teachers around it going, ‘What can we do?’ And so it’s really important to be able to see students. And so I think that it really brought an awareness of how we can dig deeper in that relational piece. And once again, when there’s research that shows if you have a relationship and a connection, you’re going to want to come in those doors at eight o’clock.”

But Kate definitely does not want to come in those doors. For her, it’s clear what’s standing in her way are pretty severe mental health challenges. At this point, Mrs. Blatt is speaking about students in general, but it sure sounds familiar. 

“If you have high anxiety, maybe academic anxiety, you’ve come back from COVID, you really didn’t do much,. and now you’re faced with sitting in class getting all this information, and you just can’t do it. You break down and you stop coming to school.” 

I’m not sure what to think. Mrs. Blatt seems so keyed in on the exact things Kate struggles with at school: the distrust, the anxiety, the alienation. I’d thought Mrs. Blatt was the problem, but now I’m not sure. Especially after my not-so-successful experience trying to help the calf reunite with its herd. 

I let her know I’ve been spending time with Kate.  

“A lot of the questions I ask, I have her in mind,” I admit. “Because she’s a kid that’s so shut down, it’s really hard to figure out what’s going to get her to come back to school.”

“It is a very interesting case,” Mrs. Blatt agrees.  “And I really want her to succeed. But it was interesting, the spin on all that because of all the things we’ve talked about. Yeah, I had to be the opposite of what I was telling you.”

Because of her ADHD and autism, Kate was entitled to special education services, so a team of teachers and staff, including Mrs. Blatt, worked to help Kate navigate school. And they tried a lot of different things, according to Mrs. Blatt. Creating a designated space for her to go during panic attacks, decreasing her course load so she didn’t feel so much academic pressure, moving her into a smaller classroom. But when Kate still couldn’t get to school regularly, Mrs. Blatt says she tried a different approach. 

“I was the heavy. Which I’m usually not.”

“What’s that mean?” I ask.

“My role was to get her here,” says Mrs. Blatt. “I wanted her here to show her she could do the work and the whole system, whatever we were doing wasn’t working. And I usually can make things happen. And so as a team member, I came in on the side of what I deem is this true administrator where things are cut and dry. And here’s this and here’s the consequence.”

Playing the heavy. 

So Bonnie gets the text from Mrs. Blatt saying the school has reported her to the county attorney for educational neglect. And that scare tactic motivated Bonnie to start looking for resources outside of the school. She found a program called High-Fidelity Wraparound, a really wonky name for a program that provides a case manager who helps families with kids like Kate navigate all the different systems from schools to courts to healthcare. And that case manager helped Bonnie work out a plan with the school for Kate to work one-on-one with a teacher at the public library to finish off the year. 

So Mrs. Blatt coming in as the heavy certainly had an impact, and it reminded me of that little calf. By scaring it, I got it moving down the fence to that spot where it could get through. I did what I could with limited tools. 

“There are things beyond our control, that if we’ve exhausted all our resources there, we need places of support outside the school education system for students like that one you’re speaking about,” says Mrs. Blatt. “Because we have hope for her. And we don’t want to give up on students. But we’re not a hospital that can provide the services that a hospital can provide. We are an education system, a system of learning. So even though I’ve talked about wrapping around and supporting kids, it is beyond our means, our capabilities.”

“But then the question that I’m left with is,” I say to Mrs. Blatt, “does it have to be antagonistic? Is that just a thing that’s required sometimes? Or is there a way to kind of motivate kids and families to start problem solving in different ways without that tension?”

“Yes, but there are laws,” she says. “So the law states that a freshman and a sophomore have to be at school. That’s state law. I can lose my job.”

Mrs. Blatt says she really wants the best for Kate, but still, Kate needs to show up because those are the rules. So if at the end of the day, with whatever assistance has been offered, Kate cannot pull it together, there’s really only so much the school can do. Her needs might be better served at a psychiatric treatment facility.  

 

A Scary Walk Through A Dark Forest

 

Even though sending Kate away from the high school, away from her family is exactly the outcome the family most wants to avoid — the outcome I saw go terribly wrong for other kids — I have to admit that after talking to Mrs. Blatt, I don’t know what’s best for Kate. It’s all spinning in my head when I get in the car and head over to Bonnie and Bob’s. 

Bonnie says it’s been a hard day. Kate wouldn’t come out of her room for breakfast or lunch or take her anxiety medicine, and she’s not up for talking to me today. Bonnie knows I talked to Mrs. Blatt, and she wants to know how it went. 

“I think the thing that’s sad and that might be true,” I say, “is she’s like, ‘Sometimes we hit the end of our line in terms of our resources, and that there really are times when kids need something more.’”

“See, that’s where they leave me,” Bonnie says. “Which means you need to put her in a [treatment center]because we don’t have enough.”

“But on the drive over here, I was like, not all treatment centers are created equal.” 

“No, they’re not,” Bonnie says.

I know Bonnie called me after hearing my reporting on Larissa Salazar, and I worry that story cast a shadow on the idea of Kate spending any time away from her family because maybe some intensive treatment might help Kate reset. It’s a big decision, and one that Bonnie feels forced to make because there aren’t more resources available locally. 

“That’s exactly where I’m at,” Bonnie says. 

“Like, you don’t want to go there if you don’t need to?” I ask. 

“Right and I’m scared it’s gonna make her very, very angry and even more rebellious, and shut down and feel that she’s been totally abandoned. She knows she’s not getting better. I know she knows,” Bonnie says with a heavy sigh. “I don’t know how to crack this nut. I asked God, but he’s not sending down telegrams. He never did.”

“I wish I could crack it for you,” I say.

“I know,” she says. “I wish you could find the magic pill or the magic person.” 

At this point, Kate’s on summer break with tenth grade looming ahead. Will she go back to school? Can she go back to school? And if she doesn’t, then what? 

“I don’t know,” Bonnie says. “It’s just a scary walk through a dark forest.” 

There’s a precariousness to life in this vast mountainous state. Resources can be limited because we have a small population, around half a million people, spread across a lot of terrain, and that most certainly has implications for kids, and schools. But that’s not just an inevitable symptom of our geography, it’s also our political culture. 

“I think if you look back at Wyoming’s history,” says Brian Farmer, the executive director for the Wyoming School Boards Association, “you see a pendulum that kind of swings back and forth, when it comes to governmental support for community mental health.”

Downtown Cody, Wyoming

Downtown Cody, Wyoming. Photo by Kamila Kudelska

 

Brian is deeply invested in helping local communities educate and nurture kids. He says there’ve been times when the state allocated more for mental health, but over the last decade, that funding has been on the downswing. And Brian says when mental health resources aren’t available elsewhere in the community for kids then, “the mental health resource is the school. So there may be nothing else, you know. There may be an outreach clinic from somewhere in Casper, or there may be somebody who comes in a couple of times a month from Nebraska or whatever. But there are communities in Wyoming that really don’t have those resources within their communities.”

What I heard from Mrs. Blatt is that the school can only do so much. When we talked, she was running a high school with 600 students and only two counselors. She was trying to hire a third to work with the most at-risk kids. There was one school psychologist who served the whole district, and there just weren’t enough mental health providers in town. I’ve heard this story time and time again in communities across Wyoming. And I understand that schools can’t be everything to every kid. But when adults run out of options, it doesn’t seem fair to funnel kids into the justice system. 

Experts say it’s unfair, ineffective and expensive. Last episode, I mentioned South Dakota’s comprehensive juvenile justice reform, and how by investing in local programming, the state saved money it would have otherwise spent incarcerating kids. Well, it was South Dakota’s governor that really led the charge on those reforms, so I wondered if juvenile justice reform was something Wyoming’s governor Mark Gordon might push for. So I gave him a call.

 

The Care Of Human Life And Happiness

 

“Well, Tennessee,” Gov. Gordon says, “you know, obviously, it’s an evolving issue, and so I think that conversation at a statewide level is very valuable.”

But there’s a difference between a statewide conversation, and the state actually taking action to change things on the local level. Gordon says Wyoming doesn’t like a top-down approach.  

“We are a local control state. And that’s always been sort of the tradition there.”

But I’m thinking to myself, ‘Isn’t there a paradox in leaving this up to local communities when it’s state lawmakers who control the amount of money that flows to mental health services?’

“You know, Tennessee, I think government functions best when it’s closest to the people,” the governor tells me. “There’s obviously some pitfalls that come with that, but that’s the tension that has to happen.”

But why? Brian Farmer says it’s cultural. Wyomingites take pride in their ability to tackle challenges on their own.

  

Fanning a Twister,” by Peter Fillerup

 

“The reason that Steamboat, that bucking horse and bronco, is such a great symbol for Wyoming is it’s that sort of rugged individualism,” says Brian. “I take care of myself, you take care of yourself, and really that ‘Live and let live’ attitude.”

And those values have become more and more enmeshed with politics over time: keep government small and leave caring for people to civil society. 

“Maybe it’s the role of churches, maybe it’s the role of families, maybe it’s the role of communities, and those notions ring strong in Wyoming communities,” says Brian. “We look out for each other, we take care of each other, communities will do these things. But the reality is that communities never did those things for everybody. There were always kids that fell through the cracks.” 

So why not coordinate a statewide effort to fill those cracks? As a reporter, I feel like the kid who keeps asking why and keeps being told because

“Because that’s how we’ve always done it here,” I say on the phone to Brian.

“Yeah, I think that last part is really, maybe unsatisfying. But probably the most honest answer is that [local control] is a predominant value and people are okay with that. And so I think people will always, as a cultural value, hold to that notion because when Thomas Jefferson talks about the government closest to the people, governs the best, that’s a part of our social experience that I think we agree with.” 

But Wyoming’s pride in governing close to the people isn’t universally applied. Mrs. Blatt said she could be flexible in a lot of ways, but when it came to Kate’s attendance, her back was up against the state’s compulsory education law. If the district had more flexibility, then maybe Kate’s relationship with her school wouldn’t have felt so strained. 

Thomas Jefferson had some other ideas about government that could be helpful here. When he left the U.S. presidency in 1809, he wrote to his fellow Republicans, and he concluded the letter with these words

“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government.”  

What would growing up in Wyoming be like if that advice from Jefferson defined our political culture? 

 

“They Were Ready To Send Her Away”

 

Winter and snow covers the prairie

Photo by Kamila Kudelska

 

By the time I get back up to Cody to see Bonnie and Bob and Kate, it’s early December, almost five months since our last visit. It’s a Sunday evening around 6 when I knock on the door. I’d hoped to get to their house earlier, but a blizzard slowed me down. 

“I bet that’s Tennessee,” I hear Bob say.

I hadn’t seen these guys since July, and it was nice to be back in their cozy living room. 

“How are you guys doing besides the weather?” I ask.

“You feel like you’re just kind of hanging in there day by day,” he says. 

Kate did end up back at school in the fall, and for the first few weeks, Bonnie says things went okay. But being in classes with other students was just too much for Kate, and her tardies and absences started to stack up again. In October, Bonnie and Bob’s biggest fear started to come true. 

“They wanted her to go to residential,” Bonnie says. 

Mrs. Blatt and the team at the high school thought Kate should go to residential treatment in Casper, says Bonnie. But Bonnie and Bob said no. 

“Which means that we have to go round and round again because we have rights,” Bonnie says. Rights according to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. So the school gave it one more go. 

“If she took one computer class at the school, in the library, in a little room by herself, and passed it, then she could stay in school,” says Bonnie. “But she had to be on time every day and not miss a day of school.”

Kate made it to her computer class in the library the first two days. “And then after that, she couldn’t go back.”

And that was it. If she wasn’t gonna go to school there wasn’t much more the school could do. 

“They told me that Thursday that they had an opening in Casper on Monday for her. They were ready to send her away.”

That sounds harsh, but it was also starting to make more sense to me. If Kate’s anxiety was so bad that she couldn’t make it to school then maybe some intensive treatment could help. But Bonnie really believed that sending Kate away would do more harm than good. And maybe in a bigger community Kate could have stayed with her grandparents and gotten that care, but that wasn’t an option in rural Cody. 

I wondered about things like homeschooling, or now that Kate is 16, just letting her drop out. But Bonnie worried that would further isolate her granddaughter. Bonnie and Bob and Kate and the school could keep going back and forth about what to do, but how do you make a decision when none of the options feel good? 

And then this guy named Kyle Knutson came on the scene. 

“If Kyle hadn’t spoken up and taken her right away, we’d still be fighting about it.”

 

Spirit Mountain

 

This fall Kyle moved from Jackson to Cody to open up Spirit Mountain Academy, a new school designed to help kids like Kate. First thing Monday morning, I go find him so we can chat before school starts. He’s in a flannel shirt, jeans and some hiking shoes with a big grin peaking through his beard

“Here’s our first classroom.” 

Kyle is still in the process of setting up Spirit Mountain Academy in what used to be a church school. There are a few classrooms, a gymnasium and a kitchen. Lots of potential. 

“What we’re waiting for right now is internet,” Kyle says. “We’re using a hotspot from the school district. I put all my personal rugs in here because of the echo.”

Kyle moved to Cody two months ago to open up this school for BOCES. That stands for the Board of Cooperative Education Services, and BOCES runs special schools for students ages five to 21 whose social, behavioral, emotional, or educational needs exceed what regular K-12 schools can do. In addition to academic programming, BOCES teaches life skills, social skills and job skills specifically designed to help prepare kids with disabilities to thrive as adults. There are several BOCES day schools across Wyoming, and Kyle has taken on the task to open another location in Cody.  

“I got hired by BOCES about October 1, and I walked into this facility, which they had rented and I hadn’t seen it. And I walked in and I said, ‘Oh, we’re not opening up right away.’ I mean, the bathrooms hadn’t had running water in 15 years.”

He figured it would take a few months to get the doors open, maybe welcome new students in January. But when he learned about Kate, he scrambled to get things going immediately. With Bonnie’s consent, the school had reached out to Kyle to see if he might be able to help. He knew that because of Kate’s absences that Bonnie and Bob could face an educational neglect charge, and a judge could decide to send their granddaughter away.  

“I believe in residential treatment for certain students,” Kyle says.

Before moving to Cody, Kyle had worked for the last 12 years at a residential treatment center for teenagers outside Jackson called Red Top Meadows. He knew how court-ordered placements worked. 

“There were certain [kids] there that needed to be there. Being at the home was not an option.” 

But he didn’t think removing Kate from her grandparents would help. 

“She had loving, supportive grandparents who were trying their best to have boundaries,” Kyle says. “I felt like her getting sent to a [residential facility] was not going to be a healthy option, surrounded by a bunch of girls who had way more severe issues. Especially dealing with suicidal ideation was not like a healthy environment for her to be introduced to. And so I said, ‘I will do it, I will open up. I will start taking her for a walk every day. We’ll go look for rocks and buy our coffee.’ And we can just see if we can get the doors open for an hour. And now we’re at the point where I have her from 11 to 2:30.”

At Spirit Mountain Academy, Kyle has the ability to meet kids where they are, which means Kate can stick around Cody, keep working towards her high school diploma and heal at her own pace.  

“You know, the world is a very broken place,” Kyle says. “And to try to really connect with people, I think your heart has to grow a ton and understand where they’ve come from, instead of just putting my own beliefs and my expectations on how people are supposed to change. Harsh consequences don’t help people change.”

 

The Christmas Tree 

 

Around 10:30, we head out to go pick up Kate. On our way, we stop by the Cody High School to grab her a school lunch. Kyle says the district is super supportive of the work he’s doing. In fact, the district covers the cost for Kate to go to Spirit Mountain Academy

“They are so excited, all the mental health professionals in the school and the teachers and the principals,” Kyle says. “They were really excited for us to come. ‘We have been wanting something like you so much, so bad, just to come here because there’s kids, we just don’t know how to help.’” 

And so I’m super excited to see Kate at school with Kyle. Their plan for today was to put up and decorate a Christmas tree that they cut down the previous week. 

But when I show up with Kyle to get Kate, she’s still in bed. Bonnie says Kate doesn’t want to go.

“She said she would go tomorrow,” Bonnie says. 

“The Christmas tree’s drying out,” Kyle says.

“You don’t have it in water?”Bonnie asks. 

“No, I don’t care about the tree as much as I care about building that experience with her. She cut it down.”

“She cut the whole tree down?” Bonnie asks. “You didn’t tell me that.” 

“I said, ‘Do you want to cut it down?’ She’s like, ‘Sure.’ So I got the saw and I put two slices in. So she had to start it off with just a handsaw. And then we dragged it down.” 

“I’m kind of overwhelmed just imagining it.” 

Bonnie gets emotional hearing this, and I do too. This feels like big progress for a kid who spends a lot of time scared to come out of her room. And it’s big for Bonnie too. Fighting to keep Kate home has been a full-time job. What would have happened to Kate if Bonnie and Bob weren’t retired? Most working parents don’t have that kind of time. With Kate at Spirit Mountain Academy, I hope Bonnie gets a chance to breathe. 

At this point, Kate still hasn’t come out of her room, and I’m worried that maybe my audio recorder is part of what’s stressing her out, so I turn it off and put it aside. I don’t have tape of what happens next. With Kate still in bed, we just sit and chat in the living room. We talk about the weather, and Bob asks Kyle how he likes living in Cody. And eventually, Kate does come out of her room. 

Kyle asks her if she wants to go to school, and she says no. And he says that’s okay for today. And instead of retreating to her room, Kate sits down and hangs out with us for a while. Bonnie asks Kate more about the Christmas tree she cut down for school. And Kate and Kyle make a plan to put it up tomorrow, and we leave. 

As we head back to the school, Kyle tells me today still feels like progress. 

“I think a lot of it is just this perceived stress level that she can’t overcome,” says Kyle. “And she came out and she explored. She was listening in the kitchen for a while and thank God she did.” 

 

Justice By Geography

 

I talked to Bonnie on New Year’s Eve. She told me Kate hadn’t missed any more days of school. 

But that good news is bittersweet because I know there are lots of kids across Wyoming who don’t have a Kyle or a Spirit Mountain Academy. It’s still luck of the draw and justice by geography. Wyoming lawmakers are considering a bill to gather statewide juvenile justice data. That would help counties have a better sense of what’s working and what’s not. Data alone won’t reduce Wyoming’s high juvenile incarceration and suicide rates, but it’s a step in the right direction. I say, if we’re true to the story we tell ourselves about being rugged, resilient problem solvers, it’s high time we roll up our sleeves and get to work making sure kids in every community have the resources they need to thrive.

Cowboy Up art by Eda Uzunlar

Music
Blue Dot Sessions