A Casper seventh-grader was bullied early last month on a school bus and later ended up in the emergency room.
What happened in between those events, though captured on video, remains in dispute between the girl’s family and the Natrona County School District.
Caitlin Jonckers, a 12-year-old CY Middle School student, was traveling home Oct. 2, sitting next to a friend near the middle of the bus. Behind her were two more students, with a third behind them. Jonckers and her mother, Amber O’Donnell, said the students began hurling trash at her, calling her vulgar names and kicking and poking her around the back of the seat.
Jonckers said she had never had previous issues with the students. The harassment lasted the entire 30-minute ride, she said. She repeatedly asked the students to leave her alone, but the harassment continued. The bus driver at one point told the students to sit down but did not intervene with what happened next.
Steve Ellbogen, the district’s executive director for business services who oversees transportation, said he learned of the incident that evening. A subsequent investigation determined two students behind Jonckers bullied her on the bus, and those students were punished, he said last week.
This is where the stories diverge. Ellbogen said Jonckers and one of the girls exchanged words as they left the bus, and Jonckers followed the other student, instead of turning in the other direction toward home. Jonckers got into the other student’s “personal space,” Ellbogen said, and the interaction became physical. It lasted about seven seconds, he said.
Ellbogen avoided describing Jonckers or the other student as the aggressor, nor would he say whether one student threw the first punch.
O’Donnell and her daughter had no such qualms. At their west Casper home last week — where Jonckers has spent weeks recuperating from a concussion and broken toe sustained during the fight — the two described Jonckers being pinned against a fence and attacked first by the student sitting two rows back in the bus and then by the two girls in front of her. One of those girls threw the first punch, the family says, and Jonckers responded in self-defense.
Jonckers said she confronted the students off the bus after one of the girls punched her in the back as they were leaving the bus.
“I went up to them to tell them, ‘This is not OK. Leave me alone. This is very immature, and I would be reporting it,’” she said. “And, um, this older girl, they started taunting, and one of them was getting in my space. ... And the older girl punched me in my head.”
After the fight, the mother and daughter say, Jonckers walked up the street with the help of her seatmate, away from the other girls.
Jonckers said her memory of the incident is foggy from the concussion. O’Donnell, after repeated requests, was allowed to view the video but could not keep a copy.
The Natrona County School District denied the Star-Tribune’s request to view the video, citing student privacy. Ellbogen previously said the technology that would be used to block students’ identities in the video would also make it too difficult to see the actions taking place.
The incident comes as the district looks to move forward from a high-profile incident of what officials called “extreme bullying” at Kelly Walsh last year. In the months since, the school board has updated its bullying policy and expanded the powers of staff to give information to the media. The district has also created and implemented the discipline guidelines Ellbogen referred to.
The district investigated and suspended Jonckers for three days for her role in the fight off the bus. The other student was also punished, both for the fight and the bullying on the bus. Ellbogen defended the decision and said the district did not differentiate between who threw the first punch and who was reacting. He added that the district had followed its recently released discipline guidelines, which apply standardized punishments across the district.
O’Donnell was incredulous that Jonckers was suspended and considered anything other than a victim in the physical altercation that followed. She said Jonckers was nearly dropped from CY’s enrollment because of time missed, an issue O’Donnell said she was able to clarify at the near-last minute.
Medical records shown to the Star-Tribune by O’Donnell show Jonckers went to Wyoming Medical Center’s emergency room that night after the seventh-grader began vomiting; she was later diagnosed with a concussion. She spent the rest of October out of school on medical leave as a result of the injury and has been receiving home-bound teaching. O’Donnell, who missed weeks of work to take of her daughter, said the girl may require surgery to correct the toe injury.
Wednesday, O’Donnell said Jonckers would be out of school for another month because of the head injury.
The suspension slip, provided to the Star-Tribune by the family, shows Jonckers was suspended for fighting and for a “physical altercation at the bus stop.” The punishment is a three-day out-of-school suspension, with the days being counted as served by Jonckers for the days she was out from the concussion.
Ellbogen said he had not heard of any injuries reported to any other students in relation to the incident. Asked if Jonckers’ account of the incident given to district staff differed from what was on the tape, Ellbogen demurred.
“I don’t know if I can compare,” he said. He said her account of the bullying on the bus “aligned” with what appeared on the tape. That’s less true, he said, for what happened off the bus.
“That’s where some of the things that she shared were in line, while there were some different perspectives from some of the other witnesses,” he continued. He said there were not “multiple girls in certain positions.”
In detailed notes that O’Donnell has kept since the days after the incident, she wrote that Officer Justin Edberg — a school resource officer who became involved after O’Donnell called the police Oct. 2 — told her that Jonckers had “charged” the other girl and he had not seen “the other 2 girls punch Caitlin,” as Jonckers recalls.
Sgt. Jeff Bullard, who oversees the police department’s school resource officers, said the agency had reviewed video of the incident. No criminal prosecution was undertaken and the department deferred any punishment to the school district, he said.
Bullard said he was unable to say what punishment the district had settled on and declined to comment further.
O’Donnell said she suspects there was a second incident, after the first fight right off the school bus, that led to Jonckers sustaining the injuries. But Ellbogen disputed that, saying that there’s no evidence to support a second altercation.
The next steps remain as in doubt as the narratives about what happened. O’Donnell, who says she’s falling behind on the bills to stay home and care for her daughter, said she’s considering taking legal action against the district. She wants the other students to be removed from the bus.
Ellbogen said there was no other option for those other students in terms of bus routes. He said the district had offered Jonckers a different bus that takes her even closer to home or for the student to stay on the same bus but have an adult aide ride in the afternoon.
O’Donnell said Wednesday that she was continuing to fight for further access to the tape. She said she is still exploring legal options, and Joncker’s grandmother has set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for medical and other expenses.
Star-Tribune staff writer Shane Sanderson contributed to this report.