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Documents offer new details into school district's response to waterboarding allegations

Natrona County School District officials launched a week-long investigation into an incident at Kelly Walsh High School one day after a freshman on the school’s wrestling team was reportedly waterboarded by his teammates.

The district began the investigation on Jan. 4 and spoke with 22 people over the following week, according to a letter from the district’s private attorney to the Star-Tribune’s lawyer. The alleged victim, his parents, the alleged perpetrators, school employees and others were all interviewed as part of the investigation, school district attorney Kathleen Dixon wrote.

Shortly after, district and Kelly Walsh officials discussed waterboarding and an incident at the school, emails obtained by the Star-Tribune show.

The letter and emails offer the most detailed glimpse into how the district responded to the waterboarding allegations. The new information comes weeks after the Star-Tribune reported on Jan. 20 that the freshman wrestler was held down and waterboarded in the Kelly Walsh locker room. The district at the time refused to provide any details related to the incident, and Natrona County District Attorney Michael Blonigen said he would not press charges.

In a Feb. 27 letter to the Star-Tribune’s attorney, Dixon confirmed for the first time that there was an incident at Kelly Walsh on Jan. 3 and that administrators learned of it on Jan. 4.

“Administrators interviewed 22 individuals who were witnesses or potential witnesses, including the alleged victim, his parents, the alleged perpetrators, school employees and others, from January 4, 2018—January 11, 2018,” Dixon wrote. “The investigation included questions to determine not only the factors of the incident, but to determine if similar incidents had occurred; none were identified.”

She added that an investigator from Kelly Walsh concluded school policy had been violated and that “offending students” were punished. The letter does not describe the nature of the punishment.

The attorney’s letter does not provide details of the incident itself, nor does it mention waterboarding.

Emails offer partial view of district response

However, emails between district officials do use the term. In a Jan. 12 email, Tom Ernst, the district’s safe schools director, asked about the “waterboarding incident.”

“It’s my understanding that there was only one event and it happened at the school,” Ernst wrote. “Sorry for the questions but I feel way out of the loop on this.”

AJ Nathan, the athletic director for Kelly Walsh, wrote back that there “was only one event, on January 3rd, that took place at the school.”

The email was also sent to Brad Diller, Kelly Walsh’s principal; Walt Wilcox, an associate superintendent; and Sydney Webb, the district’s head of transportation.

Messages sent to Diller, Wilcox, Ernst and Nathan seeking comment were not returned Tuesday.

Nathan’s vague reference to an incident at the school is consistent with previous public responses by the district. Spokeswoman Tanya Southerland did not deny or comment on the waterboarding incident when asked about it in mid-January. When pressed about that allegation, she said the district had become “aware of an isolated incident involving a violation of the student code of conduct.” She refused to comment on what happened and when, the age of the students involved, the school at which the incident occurred, and what punishment those involved faced.

In a separate, undated email, Travis Peak, the Kelly Walsh wrestling team coach, sent Nathan a copy of the wrestling team’s roster. He wrote that he had been “busy with the locker room thing.” He told Nathan he tried to call him “to talk about it.”

In another email shown to the Star-Tribune, Peak told a relative of the alleged victim that he was “very sorry that this incident has rocked your family so hard and completely changed your mind about the program.”

“I also want you to know that we are doing our best to raise good young men and not just wrestlers,” he wrote from an email account that matches the one obtained in the Star-Tribune’s record request.

An email sent to Peak seeking comment was not returned Tuesday.

Sudden change in policy

Though Dixon’s letter doesn’t specifically mention waterboarding, it represents the most detail the school district has publicly provided about the incident. Southerland told the Star-Tribune in mid-January that an incident of “extreme bullying” had occurred within the district. But she and Dixon declined to provide any other information. They said providing those details would violate student privacy.

It’s unclear why the district’s private attorney was able to provide new information to the Star-Tribune. District officials previously asserted privacy concerns prevented them from releasing the very details the letter later confirmed and they had cited statutes that, they said, tied their hands.

In response to a Star-Tribune email expressing concerns about the district’s inconsistent privacy policy, Southerland said that it was “standard procedure” to consult with the school district’s attorney on the release of information and that the district was working to implement a framework that would allow it to provide more information to the public.

The waterboarding allegations have prompted a broader discussion within the school district about bullying. District officials, at the direction of the school board, have said they will conduct a top-down review of the district’s bullying policy. While the board has not publicly confirmed the incident took place, they’ve expressed their dismay about the reports.

At a board meeting in January, members of the public criticized the district’s handling of the waterboarding incident. Trustee Ray Catellier told the audience that “it’s embarrassing for us as well.” Fellow board member Dana Howie said there was more to the story than had been released publicly, though she did not elaborate.

In a heated argument with a parent after the meeting, trustee Kevin Christopherson defended himself by saying he “did not do it,” apparently in reference to the waterboarding incident.

No board members denied the accusations.

About 100,000 public comments supporting sage grouse plans missing in federal report, some say

A funny bird with serious implications for Wyoming energy continues to divide the west, according to a summary of public comments published recently by the Bureau of Land Management. But conservation advocates say the summary leaves out about 100,000 comments in support of existing protections.

The Bureau of Land Management quietly released the initial report Friday which details responses to potential changes to federal management plans for the bird.

Sage grouse neared an endangered species listing two and a half years ago, but federal and state plans to protect sage grouse habitat staved off a listing. The decision was hailed as a successful collaboration between states, federal agencies and private citizens, particularly in places like Wyoming, where a listing would have had dire impacts on the economy.

Last year, the new administration in the White House noted a need to evaluate federal policies that hamper energy development, which led to a reassessment of the Bureau of Land Management sage grouse plans.

The federal strategy for protecting the bird could be revised in a number of ways, taking into account different views across the bird’s 11-state habitat, and Friday’s report summarizes the public response to that possibility.

More than 20 conservation groups, including Backcounty Hunters and Anglers and the National Wildlife Federation, said about 100,000 of their comments supporting the existing plans appear to have been left out. The groups say the letters were sent to the appropriate Bureau of Land Management emails and have asked that the agency redo the report to include their comments.

Representatives from the Bureau of Land Management said they were looking into the complaint.

“We’re aware of the concern and are checking to ensure that all comments and issues are represented in the final scoping report,” said Don Smurthwaite, a spokesman from the national office.


Many of the comments reflect oft-reported views on sage grouse and fell into two main categories. There were those who wanted the plans untouched or made stronger and those who wanted revisions to make the planning requirements more flexible. Environmental groups leaned to the former, while state governors and energy groups fell in the latter, according to the federal documents.

Some argued the plans needed to align more closely with state plans and some pushed to eradicate the plans in total.

The majority of the comments, 67 percent, came from individuals. Organizations, businesses and nonprofits were the second largest group and government submissions were the smallest, with 7.5 percent.

Wyomingites submitted the most comments out of the states impacted by the sage grouse plan, 10 percent, compared to 7.6 percent out of Idaho and 5.3 percent from Utah.

In total, states within the sage grouse planning area contributed 64 percent of the comments, while 18 percent were from states outside the sage grouse impact area.

Some of the discussions summarized by the Bureau of Land Management are technical in nature – attempting to tie standards to some measurable objective. Others are related to the foundations of the habitat approach. Some in Utah, for example, argued to eliminate general habitat designations and just leave the more crucial habitat in place, according to the agency’s report.

On nearly all topics, commenters differed but fell into the general camps noted by in the report’s summary – either keep the plans whole or make them more flexible.

Commenters opposed using population targets instead of habitat-based management, though some said captive breeding could be used if locals desired.

A Wyomingite asked the feds to amend the plans to make it clear that wind farms and sage grouse habitat don’t mix, according to Wyoming’s current approach. A ban of wind development in the bird’s habitat should stand until Wyoming has developed guidelines for wind in sage grouse areas. The most protected habitat, priority areas, should exclude wind development rather than just discourage it, another noted.

Utah and Idaho requested full consistency between state plans and federal plans. Other states were less stringent.


The funny western species speckled across the West has declined in numbers due to human development, ranching and energy extraction in its habitat. Wyoming is now home to about 30 percent of the remaining population. The state has spearheaded conservation strategies for the bird, and much of the state’s approach is mirrored in the federal plans.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made a series of statements last year that were at odds with Wyoming’s strategy but championed Western input. His statements disturbed a number of people in the conservation community across the West, and prompted Gov. Matt Mead and some other western leaders to walk a fine line balancing state’s rights and sage grouse science.

Zinke’s focus on population targets and the mention of minor issues like captive breeding appeared out of step in Wyoming, with the habitat-improvement philosophy of managing the bird.

Zinke and the Bureau of Land Management officials have also noted the importance of aligning public land management in the West with support for fossil fuel extraction, particularly oil and gas, another point that worried conservationists.

Brian Rutledge of the Audubon Society and a member of Wyoming sage grouse management team, said he was cautiously optimistic on the direction of the federal handling of sage grouse since the kerfuffle last year.

The federal agency had to mount a learning curve regarding what works in conservation, and Wyoming in particular needed to help them get to the other side, he said.

“The overwhelming response has been do what we were doing,” Rutledge said. “Don’t try and build a new railroad. This is a proven strategy that we are using.”

Wyoming Republican Party investigating internal dispute, chairman says

CHEYENNE — The Wyoming Republican Party is investigating an “alleged dispute” between party secretary Charles Curley and Executive Director Kristi Wallin, Chairman W. Frank Eathorne said Tuesday.

“There is an alleged dispute between our secretary and our executive director,” Eathorne said. “With the investigation ongoing, that’s all I can say.”

Curley and Wallin both declined to comment.

Eathorne said that because party operations are governed by the central committee, composed of representatives from across the state, no action can be unilaterally taken in resolving disputes. He said that there were witnesses to the incident in question and that once the investigation was complete, the central committee would be able to act according to set rules of procedure.

“We’ll have more information forthcoming,” Eathorne said. “We want the public to know we’re following due diligence and will be very transparent.”

Wallin is a paid staff member of the party while Curley was elected secretary by party members.

The nature of the dispute remains unclear. Rep. Marti Halverson, R-Etna, who serves as national committeewoman for the state party, said, “I only know what I’ve heard.”

Asked what she had heard, Halverson declined to comment.

Eathorne estimated the investigation would be complete, and the state party would begin adjudicating the dispute, within 24 hours.

“There are people that are interested and want to see justice and that’s our interest as well,” he said.

Wallin has had a long career in Wyoming politics, working for past U.S. Sens. Malcolm Wallop and Al Simpson and current Sen. John Barrasso. She has also worked as a development officer for the University of Wyoming Foundation, according to a short biography on the Wyoming Humanities website.

According to his personal website, Curley is a lobbyist for the libertarian Wyoming Liberty Group. However, the group says he hasn't worked for them for two years. He was first elected party secretary in 2015.

Casey Page, For the Star-Tribune 

Bison are held at the Stephens Creek Bison Capture Facility just inside Yellowstone National Park in 2015. Rangers arrested two people Tuesday who allegedly tried to chain themselves to a bison corral. 

Eastern firm crosses zoning hurdle to developing a coal research facility in northern Wyoming

A northern Wyoming county approved a controversial zoning application Tuesday, making way for coal manufacturing and research facilities to be developed outside Sheridan.

The firm, Ramaco Wyoming Coal Company, has been at odds with a number of local landowners over its proposed Brook Mine in recent years and lost a fight over the mining permit for Brook in October. Brook would be the first new coal mine in Wyoming in decades, but landowners were concerned by the firm’s approach to key environmental issues including the impact of mining on local water wells and the effects of blasting on nearby homes.

The zoning debate, however, centered over allowing Ramaco to locate its newest coal venture in an area near the mine site that is currently zoned as agriculture or the county’s industrial park.

Opposition said the site is a popular recreation area and located near the Tongue River, making a facility dealing with coal products a potential hazard. The company’s representatives countered that Ramaco already owns the land and should be allowed to develop in that location. They also argued in previous interviews that the impact would not be as severe as some locals feared.

County Commissioner Bob Rolston, who voted in favor of the rezoning Tuesday, said he was impressed by Ramaco’s proposal.

“It’s a good positive move,” he said. “I think they are honest in their approach, and I think they will be working with the folks there and the community to make it a very successful venture.”

Rolston acknowledged that those in opposition valued the area for other reasons.

“It was a personal issue for some of the close neighbors there,” he said.

The firm’s CEO, Randall Atkins, expressed gratitude to local supporters in a statement Tuesday, and stumped for the future of coal in Sheridan County.

“We believe in a new future for coal,” Atkins said. “The carbon from coal can be used as a building block for creating products used for infrastructure, building products, carbon fibers, automotive and other key industries.”

Shannon Anderson, a lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said she believed the zoning decision set a bad precedent for the county, valuing industrial ventures over agriculture and other interests.

Sheridan has been investing in the area for years because of its value as a hunting, fishing and recreation spot, contributing key dollars in their local revenue. Putting a manufacturing center in the middle of it will degrade that value, she said.

Ramaco and the Powder River Basin Resource Council have been at loggerheads for years over the company’s intentions with the Brook Mine.

An independent environmental review board sided with the council and some landowners over the mine in October sending Ramaco back to the drawing board.

The company has distanced its intentions with Brook from the proposed research and manufacturing facility, and tweaked its name to distinguish it from Ramaco Resources, the CEO’s coal firm in Appalachia.

Ramaco originally sought to sell coal from the Brook Mine to power producers, like the much larger coal mines east of Sheridan County, and quickly became entangled in a fight over right of ways with another coal company in Sheridan County. But with the coal market in a period of uncertainty and falling demand, the company reworked its Wyoming intentions early last year.

The amount of coal needed for the manufacturing and research approach, the company has said, is likely small enough to find interested providers just next door whether the Brook mining permit proceeds or not.