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Brita Graham Wall, Courtesy  

In 2005, USGS/YVO postdoctoral fellow Brita Graham Wall used a radio-controlled camera attached to a helium balloon to take photos above Norris Geyser Basin to gain insight into the distribution of cracks and fractures that feed the hot springs. 

Parents of special education student say they were 'misled' about mocking texts, photo

The parents of a student depicted in a photo that exposed her buttocks and who was mocked by her special education instructors at Manor Heights said they were repeatedly misled by the principal of the school, even after district officials pressed the administrator to be “crystal clear” about the contents of text messages exchanged by the educators.

“I feel infuriated, betrayed, misled,” the girl’s father said in an interview last week. The Star-Tribune granted the parents anonymity to protect their daughter’s identity.

“None of this was brought up to us,” the mother added.

The parents’ statements came a few days after the Star-Tribune reported that two special education instructors shared a photo of the parents’ daughter in which the student is slumped over a desk with her bare buttocks exposed. The same instructors also complained that the student was “filthy” and that they wanted to “spray her down with the hose.”

The text exchanges, which included further mockery of students and families, were revealed to Natrona County School District officials in the fall. The district investigated but did not remove either educator from the classroom. Any discipline doled out is unclear; the district has declined to provide specifics, citing privacy concerns.

Both educators resigned from the district in January. The paraprofessional in the classroom that sent some of the messages, Jessica Westbrook, left in mid-January. Teacher Jocelyn Norcross resigned in late January, after the Star-Tribune’s inquiry began.

Norcross previously told the Star-Tribune she “can’t” comment. When asked why, she repeated that she “just can’t.” Westbrook did not respond to a previous attempt to contact her.

The parents of the student in the photo were shocked to learn the contents of the image, the details of which they say were mischaracterized by Manor Heights Principal Kent Thompson. The image is focused entirely on their daughter and includes accompanying texts of the teachers crudely mocking the view of the student’s buttocks. The parents had not seen the image until shown by the Star-Tribune, which obtained the texts, image and video through a source who received them.

The Star-Tribune granted anonymity to that source to allow the individual to speak freely about the messages and environment at Manor Heights. The newspaper similarly granted anonymity to the parents and will not publish specific details of the students’ educational needs or current educational situation.

Verba Echols, the district’s associate superintendent for human resources, acknowledged Friday that parents were not notified in the fall. She said Thompson offered the family the opportunity to see the photo and the family did not respond. She added that “there’s belief that they did not understand or (Thompson) was not clear.” She said she was inquiring further.

“If they feel that he was not crystal clear, then candidly he wasn’t,” Echols said. “Communication is only clear if it is clear to the recipients. We take their concerns very seriously.”

After being shown the photo by the Star-Tribune, the parents said it was worse than they had imagined after reading a newspaper article about the text exchanges published last week. Both were momentarily speechless as they looked at the photo. The father closed his eyes and shook his head.

Beyond being outraged, the parents were confused. The texts derisively called their daughter “filthy,” but the mother regularly wakes up early to do the child’s hair. They couldn’t understand why the girl’s buttocks were allowed to be exposed; they had previously provided a belt to the school to avoid that exact situation.

They compared the instructor’s comment about hosing their daughter down to the type of treatment an animal would be subjected to.

District explains and backpedals

In an interview in mid-January, Echols told the Star-Tribune that the parents of the student in the photo and the parents of a separate student heard in a video screaming to be let out of a room “were absolutely notified.” But Echols later acknowledged that was not entirely truthful after the parents of the student in the video told the Star-Tribune they had never been contacted in the fall.

“That’s what I believed to have happened based on the expectation that administrators clearly communicate with parents or guardians that are in their buildings,” she said Friday.

Echols, in a followup interview late last month, said the source of the mischaracterization was Thompson, who she said was embarrassed and apologetic. She defended him as an educator of integrity and called the messages and photos unacceptable and inappropriate. Asked Friday if the latest revelations changed Thompson’s situation, Echols declined to comment.

According to the parents of the student depicted in the photo, Thompson came to their house in mid-January, after the Star-Tribune began its inquiry, and told them that a former employee had dug up a photo of their daughter. He allegedly did not discuss the exact contents of the photo or the text exchanges.

The parents of the student in the video say they, too, were told in mid-January that a former staff member was trying to cause trouble and that this staff member had provided the video to the newspaper.

Echols said she went back to Thompson in late January after it was apparent parents were not fully aware of the situation and told him to be “crystal clear.”

But he continued to obfuscate the truth, the parents of the child in the photo said. When he returned to that family’s home, he allegedly told them the photo was a group photo of multiple students and that their daughter’s buttocks were “partially exposed.” The parents understood that to mean the students in the class posed for a photo. He apparently did not discuss the text exchanges, and it’s unclear if he was aware of them.

Asked if she could corroborate either version of this interaction, Echols said she wasn’t there and “it’s terribly difficult for me to speculate.”

“They are due clear communication and transparency,” she added.

The parents of the student in the video, after telling the Star-Tribune that they were never contacted until January, declined to further comment on advice from an attorney.

A message left for Thompson on Friday afternoon was not returned. A district spokeswoman typically handles comments for media from staff.

Finding out via an article

The parents of the student in the photo said they had not read the article until Tuesday and were shocked by what was described in it versus what they were told by Thompson. The newspaper had previously attempted to contact them multiple times, but through a miscommunication the family had not responded. Besides, they said, the description by Thompson of a disgruntled employee trying to make trouble made them underestimate the situation.

They said Thompson called them after the story was published, “profusely apologizing.” Both parents said they liked Manor Heights and were not trying to get the principal fired. But they wanted repercussions for the instructors who sent the photo and messages, as well as policy changes and better screening of job applicants.

They say that they can never show the article or photo to their daughter, who would be devastated. Norcross, who took the photo, was one of their daughter’s favorite instructors. Their child has multiple emotional disabilities, and Norcross worked well with her.

“You trust these people with your children,” the father said, adding that he had a hard time understanding how Norcross could both support and mock their daughter.

Echols said she hoped other parents would come forward with concerns and that the district would take the situation as a learning experience.

The family said they were coming forward because the public deserved to know and because they did not know how many other children in similar situations were mocked or photographed in a similar manner.

Editor’s note: Because of a conflict, Star-Tribune editor Joshua Wolfson was not involved in the editing or reporting of this story. Additional supervision was provided by Kathy Best, the editor of the Missoulian in Montana.

Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mine owner owes $8.6 million in delinquent taxes

The company that bought the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines is more than $8 million delinquent for taxes owed in Campbell County, most of which goes to local schools, county officials said.

Blackjewel LLC owed approximately $8.6 million on Sept. 1. The taxes are mostly for production in 2017, but also personal property taxes, said Campbell County Treasurer Rachael Knust.

The final deadline for those taxes fell on Nov. 10.

As the delinquency date approached, officials for Blackjewel contacted the county in hopes that a payment plan could be crafted to pay off the taxes in monthly payments over a period of years, said Carol Seeger, deputy county attorney.

Though that request was not granted, Seeger disputed that the county had denied Blackjewel’s request.

“They asked,” she said. “I have not sent them any communication saying I will not do that.”

As to whether it was possible for the county to acquiesce to Blackjewel’s request for a payment plan in the future, Seeger replied she could not answer that question as it was “speculative.”

Blackjewel CEO Jeff Hoops, an Appalachian coal miner that bought the Wyoming mines in late 2017, declined to comment when reached by phone Friday.

Blackjewel has run into a number of challenges since it stepped into Wyoming. The mines’ leases were initially held up because Hoops’ operations in states like Kentucky and West Virginia had serious violations on record.

Hoops said at the time that the violations were due to a clerical oversight that he remedied. He also noted that his Appalachian operations — underground mines — are under more scrutiny than Wyoming mines. Where Hoop’s Wyoming company had just two mine permits to oversee, his companies have an additional 720 in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, Hoops wrote in a January email to the Star-Tribune.

“We also have at least one inspector on site everyday here versus a couple of days per quarter in Wyoming,” he said. “No comparison in the level of scrutiny.”

Hoop’s compliance record back east has drawn the attention of local landowners in Wyoming as well.

The Powder River Basin Resource Council has contested the transfer of the permits of Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mines from Contura Energy to Blackjewel, citing issues with a ranch property Blackejewel has proffered as collateral against reclamation. The group has also raised concerns with state land regulators about Hoops’ environmental record.

“This is just more evidence of a company that maybe shouldn’t operate here in the state,” Shannon Anderson, lawyer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, said of Blackjewel’s delinquency. “It’s just really troubling.”

The delinquent taxes strike another chord with the group, which is currently lobbying for a bill that would place counties at a higher priority when seeking back taxes from industry.

The group had hoped for a bill considered by lawmakers during the interim that would make local production taxes due monthly. But lawmakers demurred during a meeting in November given the pressure on the coal industry in Wyoming.

Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, noted that some large coal operators had told him that their firms couldn’t afford to pay monthly taxes.

Campbell County has been through a few tax delinquency fights over Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr in recent years. The biggest concerned the two mines when they were owned by Alpha Natural Resources. Alpha filed for bankruptcy in 2015. As part of restructuring, Contura Energy was formed to acquire the two Alpha mines. In the intervening period, $20 million in local taxes were unpaid, according to the county.

The county fought for those taxes and settled at a loss last year after spending $1 million in legal fees.

Despite pressure on low-heat coal produced at Blackjewel’s two mines, the company has increased production at the Belle Ayr mine, south of Gillette, by 2.6 million short tons since taking over last year. Production at Eagle Butte, north of Gillette, fell in 2018 by 208,000 short tons.

The second half of Blackjewel’s 2018 taxes is due March 1, but is not considered delinquent unless left unpaid until May.

Alcohol Ordinance
Casper's leaders to focus on education to prevent overservice of alcohol

Casper’s leaders are planning to focus on educational efforts — not punishments — to reduce alcohol-related crimes.

“That’s awesome,” said Jason Ford, the acting manager of the Fort Saloon N’ Eatery in Casper. “I actually think that’s how it should be.”

A new alcohol ordinance — which requires three rounds of voting to take effect — passed its first vote last month. The measure initially would have made it unlawful to serve alcohol to someone who is already clearly intoxicated.

But at Tuesday’s meeting — prior to the ordinance’s second vote — the Council nixed that provision, replacing it with a statement declaring that all liquor license holders in Casper must have their employees complete an alcohol-serving training program within 90 days of being hired.

Ford said Friday that he believes training programs are very beneficial. The acting manager said he’s relieved that the city won’t be targeting servers who are sometimes faced with tricky situations.

“There are times when you get people who come in here and they’re already wasted but you can’t really tell,” he explained. “Then I give them one drink and they become very obviously intoxicated. I don’t want to be responsible for other people being irresponsible.”

Under the amended ordinance, liquor license holders who violate the training requirements will be fined $150 for the first offense, $200 for the second and $250 for the third offense within any given calendar year.

A fourth violation, and any thereafter, will result in another $250 fine, as well as a seven-day suspension of the liquor license.

The Council decided to do away with the section pertaining to overservice after multiple council and community members expressed concerns.

“I don’t support putting that liability on bar owners, or a waitress, or a bartender, or a waiter, at all,” Vice Mayor Shawn Johnson previously said. “I think it is a little overreaching.”

Matt Galloway, the owner of several bars in Casper and the acting president of the Natrona County Liquor Dealers, said earlier this month that he was pleased by the Council’s decision to focus on education.

“I don’t think there is a magic bullet (for preventing alcohol-related crimes), but I’ve been a huge advocate from day one that education and training outweigh prosecution,” he said. “I think a lot more can be achieved by educating and training our staff, from the servers and bartenders to the managers and security.”

Police Chief Keith McPheeters, who proposed the initial ordinance, has said tighter rules are needed because the overservice of alcohol is a serious problem in Casper.

Under the current system, the Council can’t begin to take disciplinary action until a liquor license holder has reached 125 points within a one-year time frame. Many violations are 25 points, including serving alcohol to minors, selling alcohol outside of the established hours or failing to maintain exits and emergency escapes.

Maduro opponents boost military rhetoric in Venezuela crisis

CUCUTA, Colombia — Opposition leader Juan Guaido on late Saturday called on the international community to consider "all options" to resolve Venezuela's crisis, a dramatic escalation in rhetoric that echoes comments from the Trump administration hinting at potential U.S. military involvement.

Guaido's comments came after a tumultuous day that saw President Nicolas Maduro's forces fire tear gas and buckshot on activists trying to deliver humanitarian aid in violent clashes that left two people dead and some 300 injured.

For weeks, the U.S. and regional allies had been amassing emergency food and medical kits on Venezuela's borders in anticipation of carrying out a "humanitarian avalanche" by land and sea to undermine Maduro's rule.

With activists failing to penetrate government blockades and deliver the aid, Guaido announced late Saturday that he would escalate his appeal to the international community — beginning with a meeting today in Colombia's capital with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on the sidelines of an emergency summit of leaders of the so-called Lima Group to discuss Venezuela's crisis.

He said he would urge the international community to keep "all options open" in the fight to restore Venezuela's democracy, using identical language to that of President Donald Trump, who in his public statements has repeatedly refused to rule out force and reportedly even secretly pressed aides as early as 2017 about the possibility of a military incursion.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also stepped up the belligerent rhetoric, saying on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that Maduro's "days are numbered."

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who visited the border last week and has Trump's ear on policy toward Venezuela, tweeted out pictures of anti-American strongmen including Panama's Manuel Noriega, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu at the height of their power and then tragic downfall — the not so subtle suggestion being that Maduro himself could suffer a similar fate.

A close Guaido ally, Julio Borges, the exiled leader of congress who is Guaido's ambassador to the Lima Group, was even more explicit in urging a military option. "We are going to demand an escalation of diplomatic pressure ... and the use of force against Nicolas Maduro's dictatorship," he said Sunday.

It's a prospect that analysts warn risks fracturing a hard-won coalition of Latin American nations who've come together to pressure Maduro's socialist government. Most Latin American governments, even conservative ones like those in neighboring Colombia and Brazil, are on the record opposing a military solution and would face huge dissent should they back any military action led by the U.S., whose interventions in the region during the Cold War remain an open wound.

"These governments know they would face a huge tide of internal opinion greatly offended by a US-led invasion for historical and political reasons," said Ivan Briscoe, the Latin America director for the Crisis Group, a Belgium-based think tank.

Though polls show Venezuelans overwhelmingly want Maduro to resign, almost an equal number reject the possibility of a foreign invasion to resolve the political impasse.

Resting at the foot of the Simon Bolivar bridge as work crews in Colombia began removing debris left by the unrest, Claudia Aguilar said she would support a military invasion but worries it would lead to more bloodshed.

The 29-year-old pregnant mother of three said she crossed illegally into Colombia on Sunday to buy a bag of rice and pasta for her family after Maduro ordered a partial closure of the border two days earlier.

"We're with fear, dear God, of what will happen," she said standing near the dirt trail she took to sneak across the border. "More blood, more deaths. The president of Venezuela does whatever he wants."

In addition to weakening multilateral pressure against Maduro, analysts say the opposition saber rattling also risks undermining Guaido's goal of peeling off support from the military, the country's crucial powerbroker.

The 35-year-old Guaido has won the backing of more than 50 governments around the world since declaring himself interim president at a rally in January, arguing that Maduro's re-election last year was illegitimate because some popular opposition candidates were barred from running.

But he's so far been unable to cause a major rift inside the military, despite repeated appeals and the offer of amnesty to those joining the opposition's fight for power.

"How many of you national guardsmen have a sick mother? How many have kids in school without food," he implored Saturday night, standing next to a warehouse where 600 tons of food and medicine have been stockpiled on the Colombian border. "You don't owe any obedience to a sadist ... who celebrates the denial of humanitarian aid the country needs."