An outside investigator has concluded that Natrona County High School administrators created an offensive educational environment and used language and actions that amounted to sexual harassment during a skit performed during a “welcome back” event Aug. 25, according to an investigation released by the district on Monday.
According to the investigation, the skit was reviewed at an administrative meeting, and the investigator believes administrators should have been concerned the material would create an offensive educational environment to some staff members.
“The complaints and concerns of all three staff members who were contacted, verifying that the skit was uncomfortable and offensive, that the verbal conduct of (redacted) and (redacted), as well as their actions, did have the purpose or effect of creating an offensive educational environment and were not welcomed by some of those to whom it was directed,” according to the investigator, Tracy Copenhaver, a Powell attorney.
Although the school does not have a policy for bullying staff members, the investigator believes “common sense” should have told administrators the skit would violate the student bullying policy and was not appropriate among adults.
Initially, school district officials said they would not release the details of the investigation, but the Star-Tribune and the district reached a compromise that included releasing nine pages of the 42-page report. Names and interviews with individual staff members and administrators were redacted from the report.
Bruce Moats, a Cheyenne-based First Amendment attorney, said there was disagreement on whether the interview statements would make it possible to identify those involved and make others reluctant to come forward in the future, but that litigation is a last resort and the compromise allowed the public access to information of high interest and importance.
“Since the minute the news of the skit broke, we’ve felt very strongly that the school district be as transparent as possible with the community about what happened, and a critical part of that was the release of the investigation results,” Star-Tribune editor Jason Adrians said. “Not only does this compromise shed light on everything in the investigation while still protecting the privacy of staff members at NCHS, it also allows us all to move forward as a community. This is a credit to the school district for its ability to finally be transparent in a way that will continue to build back public confidence.”
A handful of student council representatives were present during the skit, and the investigation’s conclusions knocked administrators for not doing more to ensure those students were not there.
”The skit and introductions were not consistent with the requirement that the organization contribute to the improvement of the moral, social and educational experiences of the student body,” the report said. “In fact, it was counter to those important standards.”
The investigator had the impression that the staff members involved were remorseful and humble and most likely had learned a very valuable lesson from the incident.
The skit was particularly problematic, according to the investigator, because similar welcome-back skits had been going on for some time.
In the past, new staff members had been called ahead of time and asked about their most embarrassing moments and other information, which might have given them a heads-up, according to the investigator. However, that was not the case for the Aug. 25 skit.
The investigator concluded that the staff members involved in creating the skit had been instructed to make it funny but were not given many, if any, guidelines on what was appropriate.
The skit, a "Saturday Night Live" parody, involved hazing new staff members using physical contact and sexually suggestive words and actions.
Former NCHS Principal Dean Kelly said he did not approve the skit but that the staff members who performed had done similar events in the past without incident.
Kelly resigned in mid-September. Superintendent Steve Hopkins said Kelly now has a nonadministrative role doing curriculum and instruction work for the district.
The four existing assistant principals, in addition to new assistant principal Jami Cordonier, are working as an administrative team handling day-to-day duties at NCHS, Hopkins said. Two central office employees – Walt Wilcox and Kelly Hornby – are also assisting the team for the rest of the school year.
The district will conduct a nationwide search for a new principal after the first of the year.
Regaining public confidence will involve time and getting back to work, Hopkins said.
The superintendent said over the next three to six months, the district would be reviewing board policies and employee practices in addition to considering significant changes to its sexual harassment training.
“We’re looking to see where that training has broken down, because clearly that training would indicate that (skit) was not appropriate,” Hopkins said.
The district will consider new methods for delivering that training to keep staff engaged and will also develop clear expectations for school leaders. The district might also create a code of conduct.
Local teachers union officials are pleased with the positive steps the district has taken so far.
Natrona County Education Association President Doreen McGlade called the investigation clean, independent and thorough.
She said she participated in both small-group and private discussions with NCHS staff a couple of weeks ago to listen to their concerns and how they were dealing with the aftermath.
McGlade is also pleased that hiring NCHS' next principal will be a group effort involving students, teachers, administrators and other community members.
"Hopkins will sit on and observe all of those interviews and take input from each group," McGlade said. "It's an inclusive, open model for hiring an administrator at this level, and I'm very pleased with that."
In the meantime, she echoed others who were interviewed: With the investigation completed and disciplinary actions taken, it's time to get back to teaching and learning.
Reach Tom Dixon at 307-266-0616 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DixonTrib.
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