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Natrona County School District officials say they will conduct complete review of bullying policies

The Natrona County School District will conduct a top-to-bottom review of its bullying policies with an eye toward quick and transparent responses, officials said Monday, less than a month after allegations surfaced that a student was waterboarded at Kelly Walsh High School.

“There is a policy, but getting to the bottom of it, it takes some time, and that’s really not good,” board chairwoman Rita Walsh said during the board’s pre-meeting work session Monday night. “I think it has to be immediate.”

Board members called for a number of changes and improvements to the district’s existing policy and response weeks after a number of people criticized officials for their handling of the waterboarding allegations and for bullying incidents in general. Superintendent Steve Hopkins said officials would conduct a review of the district’s “full gamut” of bullying policies and responses.

He said some changes could be made quickly and others may take some time but that the district was committed to the work.

Trustee Dave Applegate called for better transparency by the district as administrators investigate bullying allegations. Last month, officials repeatedly declined to provide any details related to allegations that a KW wrestler was held down and waterboarded in the school’s locker room.

The district attorney declined to press charges related to the allegations and said the victim at least partially consented to the alleged attack. The prosecutor characterized the incident as one of inappropriate hazing. A relative of the victim, meanwhile, denied that characterization and said the victim was an unwilling participant throughout the entire incident.

The alleged attack, first reported by the Star-Tribune in mid-January, sparked a public backlash and a broader conversation about bullying within the school district. On Monday night, the board met and held its first public meeting in which they discussed the next steps to address bullying.

Board members reviewed data from across the district, which showed that there have been 353 incidents of bullying, cyber bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and threats reported so far this academic year. Officials projected that there will be 565 total incidents reported by the end of this year, or roughly 3.23 per day across the district’s nearly three dozen schools.

The district also projected that 594 students would be involved in incidents across those five categories. That figure does not include alleged victims. Based off of a districtwide enrollment of 12,975 students, the projections show that roughly 4.5 percent of students will be involved in bullying-related incidents that are reported to officials.

While both numbers are down from last year — 620 incidents by 700 students — board members still said they were too high.

“I wouldn’t come to the conclusion that it’s a good thing that we have over 500 incidents of bullying in our district,” Applegate said. “That’s a concerning number because that means over 500 students had an incident that caused them to be scared or feel threatened or something happened. The one thing I would say is we have room for improvement.”

Applegate laid out suggestions for improving transparency when it comes to bullying allegations. For one, he recommended making it clear how the district investigates incidents and when it brings in officials from outside of the school in which the incident happened. He said the district should publish the number of bullying allegations to its website, as well as the number of instructors who’ve been suspended or disciplined.

Tom Ernst, the director of student support services, said he was already working on responding to some of Applegate’s ideas.

“I just think the more we can try to be transparent about what is happening in the district, without providing any personal information that we’re not allowed to provide by law, would be very beneficial,” Applegate concluded.

Other trustees called for more training and education for students and staff related to bullying. Angela Coleman said members had received an email offering them training.

During the board’s regular meeting after the work session, trustee Clark Jensen said the bullying issue had been the most difficult situation he’s had to deal with as a board member. Without specifying what incident he was referring to, he said what was proper discipline was a tough decision for coaches and administrators who “have four lives hanging in your hands.”

“Finally, as far as plan to make it better, believe me this is as troubling to us as it is to you,” Jensen said. “This is not something that we’re going to sweep under the carpet and say that’s just some dumb kid and we’ll hope the public goes away.”

Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Daniel Garbutt, 14, and Luke Windstorm, 14, play a game of one-on-one basketball Tuesday afternoon in Bar Nunn. Monday's frigid temperatures gave way to milder — but windy — conditions that are expected to continue Wednesday. 

Woman tells jurors Tony Cercy sexually assaulted her; defense attorney begins cross examination

A woman told jurors Tuesday that Tony Cercy sexually assaulted her at his Alcova lake house and later threatened to kill her if she told anyone.

The woman, who was 20 at the time of the alleged assault, said she was haunted by nightmares in the days after she woke to the Casper businessman performing oral sex on her. She testified that she dreamed Cercy was chasing her and she was never able to get away.

Testifying for roughly fours hours in Natrona County District Court, the alleged victim told jurors she had been passed out on Cercy’s couch after a long day of drinking when she awoke to Cercy sexually assaulting her. She said she was reticent to report the allegations after Cercy threatened to kill her and himself if she did so.

Cercy faces three felony counts of sexual assault in the case. He has pleaded not guilty.

Pamela Mackey, Cercy’s lead defense attorney, began cross-examining the woman late Tuesday afternoon and insinuated that the woman’s story had changed over the course of the investigation. Despite the alleged victim’s denials of some of Mackey’s characterizations, the defense attorney pressed on, focusing on the woman’s initial conversations with friends following the assault.

The woman first said she did not recall telling investigators that yelling had taken place following the assault. After Mackey presented her with a transcript of an interview with sheriff’s deputies, the alleged victim agreed that was what she had said.

Opening statements

Before the woman testified, prosecutors and Cercy’s defense attorneys outlined their cases to the jury.

In opening statements, District Attorney Mike Blonigen said Cercy took advantage of the woman’s drunken state for his own sexual gratification.

“You can’t consent to what you don’t know about,” Blonigen said in front of a courtroom audience numbering roughly 100.

He said Cercy was also extremely intoxicated on June 25, the morning of the alleged assault, to the point of “trying to eat ice cream without a spoon.”

The woman attempted to contact people by phone more than 40 times in the hour following the alleged assault, Blonigen said. He said a roughly 15 minute silent period occurred when Cercy drove the woman to a friend’s house.

The prosecutor said the woman had bruises on her legs that could not have been caused by walking into something.

As he finished his statement, Blonigen pointed at the defendant, saying: “He exploited a drunk, helpless girl for his own personal gratification.”

Defense Attorney Pamela Mackey followed by telling jurors the woman’s story was inconsistent, unreliable and did not consist of enough evidence to convict Cercy in a case she said lacks physical evidence.

The woman’s story changed three times in the hours following the alleged assault, Mackey said. The woman also refused to report the alleged assault despite the encouragement of her friends, the defense attorney said.

“Mere words are not enough,” Mackey said. “And that is all the prosecution will bring you.”

Prosecutors are expected to call an expert witness to testify that sexual assault victims frequently do not report, and when they do, they sometimes report in a piecemeal fashion.

Mackey described Cercy as spending a quiet weekend at the lake before the woman and her friends came to his house. She said after Cercy’s wife expelled the younger crowd, the woman stayed behind asleep on the couch, before leaving in the night.

The woman’s allegations could not have taken place, Mackey said. Four dogs in the house would have woken following an assault of alleged victim’s description, the defense attorney said.

“It will not be proven,” Mackey said. “Because it cannot be proven.”

In addition to Mackey, Cercy is also represented by local attorney Ian Sandefer and Jeff Pagliuca, who works in the same Denver law firm as Mackey.

The prosecution’s first witness

The alleged victim took the witness stand shortly before noon Tuesday and said the Casper businessman frequently commented on her appearance.

She told jurors she had known Cercy since she was in seventh grade. She said Cercy sometimes called her “hottie.”

“I don’t think he ever called me by my name,” she said.

After a lunch break, the woman stayed on the stand until 5 p.m., with occasional pauses for the attorneys to discuss procedural matters.

As Blonigen projected a series of photos showing the driveway, porch, a sliding glass door and finally the couch in Cercy’s lake house, the woman said she arrived drunk, walked into the house, used the bathroom and passed out on the couch. She did not remember anything until hours later, when she awoke to find a man licking her genitals, she testified.

The woman told jurors she pushed the man’s head away. He stood up, and lights from the porch and a nearby bar area illuminated Tony Cercy, she said.

Cercy said he had been trying to wake her up with his tongue and penis, the woman told jurors.

The alleged victim began swinging at Cercy, while he backpedaled away from her while saying nothing had happened, she testified.

The woman then described a series of more than 40 phone calls and one text message she sent following the alleged assault.

When she was apparently unable to reach anyone, she said Cercy drove her to a nearby trailer park and dropped her off three or four trailers away from a friend’s trailer. Before she left, he threatened her life, she told the jury.

She described the alleged assault in a variety of fashions to friends that morning, she said. Friends later discouraged the woman from reporting the alleged assault to police, she testified.

The woman reported the alleged assault on June 28.

Mackey then took to the lectern and implied the woman had described being driven by people other than Cercy and walking to the friend’s trailer, before she said Cercy drove her. The woman denied these characterizations.

Mackey also said the woman’s description of the alleged assault had changed, which the witness also denied.

When Mackey asked the woman about “yelling,” she at first said she did not believe she was yelling. She said she did not remember characterizing a conversation with Cercy as such.

After reviewing an investigative transcript, the woman said that was what she said.

Mackey then brought up the question of barking dogs. The woman said she had never mentioned barking dogs and smiled.

“Why are you smiling?” Mackey queried.

“Because that’s been your main argument the entire time.”

“And you think that’s funny?” Mackey asked.

After the woman said yes, Mackey asked the judge if she should continue her questioning any further beyond 5 p.m.

Forgey dismissed the jury until 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Food truck parking permits will continue in downtown Casper while city works on policy

The Casper City Council decided Tuesday night that food trucks can continue to obtain parking permits downtown while city staff develops a new policy on mobile vendors.

City staff was not planning to have the policy prepared until spring, but the Council directed City Manager Carter Napier to speed up this process and have a recommendation ready within 30 days.

Food trucks became a divisive issue last summer when they started routinely parking in the city’s center on Fridays and Saturdays. Some brick-and-mortar establishments are upset because the permits are free and the trucks take away parking spaces from potential customers; others think they offer a fun dining option and bring more people downtown.

Councilmen Bob Hopkins and Shawn Johnson both voiced concerns about allowing the existing permit process to continue.

“I think this is getting really out of control,” said Johnson, adding that he felt suspending the permits for downtown was appropriate until a new policy was in effect.

But most of the Council felt there was no need to suspend the permits if a policy was going to be proposed in a month.

“I think food trucks add to the vibrancy of downtown,” said Councilman Dallas Laird, adding that customers ultimately go to the spot they believe offers the best product.

Vice Mayor Charlie Powell then urged the opposing sides to work on repairing their relationships.

“[This conflict is] the exact opposite of what we wanted to see downtown,” he said.

Food trucks have especially created tension between some downtown merchants and the owners of Frontier Brewing Company, who have encouraged the trucks to park in front of the East Second Street brewery.

Shawn Houck, Frontier’s co-owner, told the Star-Tribune last month that he doesn’t understand why the issue is controversial.

“We have a parking garage half a block away,” he said, adding that he thinks the trucks are beneficial for everyone because they draw people to the area.

But Charlie T’s Pizzeria owner Duane Jensen maintains brick-and-mortar businesses lose customers if parking isn’t available in front of the establishments that customers want to frequent.

“I don’t want to have food trucks shut down, but I want them to have a place to go that’s not in front of a restaurant,” he said last month.

The City Council decided last month to continue issuing parking permits while city staff works to create a new policy. But the Council reconsidered that decision after Jacquie Anderson, the owner of Jacquie’s Bistro, told the Council last week that it was allowing “chaos” to continue downtown.

Some downtown business owners attended Tuesday’s meeting but Council members do not typically take public comment during work sessions.

Natrona County High officials investigating report of students chanting 'the South will rise'

Natrona County High School officials are investigating a report that a group of students chanted “the South will rise” after school on Tuesday in trucks that had Confederate flags painted on them.

Leila Fox, a sophomore at the high school, said she saw the students chanting in their parked trucks on Walnut Street after school. She said she called school administrators and told them what was happening and that she was “appalled” by what she saw.

“I know multiple African Americans parked over there,” she said, adding that she saw at least three students chanting.

A spokeswoman for the Natrona County School District confirmed that the high school is investigating the incident after it received a call. It’s unclear if Fox’s call was the only one made to the high school.

After high school administrators received the call, they walked outside to try to see if the chanting was still happening, spokeswoman Tanya Southerland said. It wasn’t, but officials will review security video to try to identify those involved.

It’s unclear what consequences students would face for the chants or for displaying Confederate flags. Southerland said it could fall under bullying, harassment or a disruption to the learning environment. She said that would become clearer after the investigation was concluded.

“What I can say is that no matter what, it’s absolutely a disturbing event that’s upsetting to the campus and the students there,” Southerland said.

She said the district would provide more information on Wednesday.