Natrona County school board members stood by their recently revamped bullying policy as being sufficient to meet the district’s needs Monday after they briefly considered a petition brought by the mother of a student harassed on a bus in November.
The petition — signed by more than 100 people — was submitted by Amber O’Donnell, whose daughter Caitlin was bullied on a school bus and involved in a still-contentious fight afterward. The one-page document, which was also submitted to the Casper City Council, calls for a number of changes, including that juveniles be prosecuted for assault, that the district not deem bullying “mutual combat” when a student stands up for himself or herself, that the district improve transparency and communication and that it pursue grants.
Though trustee Debbie McCullar said the board could pursue grants, the small group of district trustees who discussed the petition Monday felt the board’s new bullying policy — updated just a few months ago — was adequate and that O’Donnell would likely remain unsatisfied regardless of what the board chose to do.
“Are there any of those points that she made in that petition that we would want to consider and change anything in our bullying policy?” asked Dana Howie, who chairs the board’s policy committee.
“I think our policy has gone through a lot of — I think it’s fine,” board chairwoman Rita Walsh said after several seconds of silence. The policy was updated several months ago, after a barely attended public forum and months of discussions by trustees.
“I do believe we have it covered with the policy that we currently have that we rewrote not more than one month before all this came out,” McCullar said, adding that the petition was “a lot of emotional wording.”
The trustees noted, for instance, that a school district couldn’t prosecute anybody and that the board had, just months before, created an entirely new policy to allow officials to more openly discuss bullying and harassment incidents with the media and public. Indeed, it was under that policy that the district discussed Caitlin’s harassment with media.
“I think we’ve gotten much better at” transparency, McCullar said.
Walsh said board members and higher-level district officials should draft a letter to O’Donnell. She acknowledged that “our answers are not going to be what (O’Donnell) wants to hear.”
The incident that led O’Donnell to draft and circulate the petition remains controversial. Both the district and the family agree that Caitlin was bullied on the bus. But O’Donnell and her daughter maintain the middle school student was attacked once she walked off of the bus, while Natrona County School District officials have said Caitlin followed one of her bullies off of the vehicle before the altercation began.
The district suspended Caitlin and the other student involved in the off-bus fight. Two students were also punished for their role in bullying Caitlin on the bus. Medical records shown to the Star-Tribune show Caitlin sustained a concussion and broken toe as a result of the altercation.
The incident received public scrutiny after media reported on the incident. It brought a renewed focus on bullying to a school district that spent nearly the entirety of 2018 considering how it handles harassment, culminating in the release of new transparency guidelines and an updated bullying policy.
After the Star-Tribune reported in November that O’Donnell was considering legal action against the district, officials announced that they would retain a third-party attorney to investigate what happened. They declined to make video tapes showing the incident public, though they showed O’Donnell.
Making similar tapes available to parents in the case of future events was one of O’Donnell’s requests in the petition. Verba Echols, the associate superintendent for human resources, said during Monday’s meeting that parents were currently allowed to view such tapes with her present, but because of privacy involving other students, a copy of any tape may not be released.
As for the fact that both Caitlin and the other student were punished for the off-the-bus incident, which has been a significant source of frustration for O’Donnell, the trustees said students had to be ready to accept consequences for their actions.
“If you’re ready to do that, there are consequences,” Walsh said.
Superintendent Steve Hopkins, who was present for the policy meeting, said there was still room for improvement within the district. But he noted the work the board has done over the past year to address bullying concerns, work that includes the updated bullying policy, the new transparency policy and the new punishment guidelines that attempt to standardize discipline across the district.
“We have all kinds of need to get better,” he said. “Do I believe the district has made very large progress? Yes.”