The Natrona County school board faced heavy criticism Monday night at a meeting that ended with a member getting into a heated argument with a parent over recent allegations of waterboarding within Kelly Walsh High School’s wrestling team.
The meeting came three days after the Star-Tribune reported that a student at KW was allegedly held down and waterboarded by teammates on the wrestling team in early January. The attack was described to the newspaper by two sources close to the victim’s family.
After a second period of public comment at the end of Monday’s meeting — which chairwoman Rita Walsh allowed because of confusion about the meeting’s start time — the board addressed a crowd of a couple dozen at Natrona County High School. The members rarely respond to things said by speakers during the public comment period, and often the end of the meeting is when they provide some response.
No members of the board denied the waterboarding allegations during their comments, but several said there was more to the story than has been described publicly. They reiterated what officials said last week, that the Natrona County School District was barred legally from providing details related to the alleged attack.
Still, they gave some response to the allegations, more than has been provided thus far by the district.
“I know the public is frustrated with the bullying problem, as are we,” said board member Clark Jensen. He added that he didn’t want to give the public the impression that the board was sweeping anything under the rug “because we’re not.”
“There’s a difference between what the school can do and what the law enforcement community can do,” he continued. “ ... We’re not here to crucify kids, we’re here to help them gain an education. The only way we can prevent kids from making bad decisions is to eliminate their ability to make decisions.”
He defended Superintendent Steve Hopkins and other district officials, though he acknowledged that “this is an embarrassment of what happened at Kelly Walsh.”
“There’s a lot more to this than you can see,” board member Dana Howie added. She said that if the district could give its side of the story, its officials would.
“It’s embarrassing for us as well,” trustee Ray Catellier said. But he echoed that the district was unable to provide details.
A silent room became more contentious during former board chairman Kevin Christopherson’s comments. He said that during his five years on the board, there have been times when he felt bullied. He made the mistake of reading online comments on the Star-Tribune’s report on the allegations, he said.
“Folks, bullying just doesn’t happen in our schools,” he continued. “It happens with grown ups.”
From the back of the room, home school parent Michelle Sabrosky called out that the allegations were torture, not bullying. Her husband, Dan, shouted that the board was the not the victim.
“So, sometimes people prove you right,” Christopherson said. “ ... Please, let’s keep it civil, realize that people do make mistakes. And I just hope that we can all move on from this.”
After the meeting, as Christopherson was leaving, Dan Sabrosky called out to him.
“Way to make yourself the victim there,” he said. Christopherson stopped and said he hadn’t done that. The conversation escalated, with the board member telling Sabrosky that he should run for the board and Sabrosky telling Christopherson that he was a coward.
After more heated back and forth, Christopherson turned and walked out of the auditorium.
The meeting began with criticism. First, a KW senior, Dylan Thompson, said he was “extremely disappointed” with Superintendent Steve Hopkins, who allegedly declined to initially meet with the family of the waterboarding victim, sources told the Star-Tribune last week.
Thompson also criticized his school’s handling of the incident and said he was disappointed with what he said was a lenient punishment from the high school for the alleged attackers, citing the Star-Tribune’s report.
The high schooler was followed by Katrina Snyder, who said she was a Kelly Walsh alum and was “ashamed, and I’m embarrassed.”
“I can’t believe how poorly this incident … has been handled,” she said. “But I’m not surprised.”
After the board moved on from public comment and was midway through their regular meeting, Michelle Sabrosky walked forward and took the mic, telling the board that many parents had been told that Monday’s meeting — which started at 7 p.m. — was at 7:30 p.m.
There were more people who wanted to comment, she said, and the public had been confused about the meeting’s start time.
The board recently changed when its meetings would begin, moving the time back from 7:30 p.m. to 7.
Chairwoman Rita Walsh agreed to open the floor for more public comment once the board’s regular business was completed.
Sabrosky came forward again and identified herself as a home school mom but said her daughter had played basketball on a district team. Her son wanted to play, too, but Sabrosky said she no longer felt that he would be safe in a locker room.
“I’m concerned that the district isn’t doing enough, I’m concerned coaches aren’t being involved and present,” she told the board.
“You shouldn’t have to torture a child to welcome him to the wrestling team,” she continued, referring to the waterboarding. “That seems insane to me. ... Everybody’s playing down the waterboarding thing, but if he had his fingernails ripped off, would we be getting a different reaction here?”
Shayne Kost asked the board if they stood behind spokeswoman Tanya Southerland’s description of the incident as “extreme bullying.” Walsh said that the board wouldn’t respond during the public comment but said the members were listening.
“Where do you as an administration draw the line between bullying and assault and torture?” Kost continued. She asked the board how they would protect students, including those participating in extra curricular activities.
“How are you going to reassure us as parents,” she said, “that the success of a sports team won’t come before or above the safety of our children?”