A Powell attorney has been tasked with investigating an October bullying incident on a school bus that spilled onto the sidewalk and ended with a student in the hospital, after the bullying victim’s family requested a new investigator.
Tracy Copenhaver, of Copenhaver, Kath, Kitchen & Kolpitcke, has been handling the investigation for roughly two weeks, a Natrona County School District officials said Monday night. The previous investigator, Casper attorney Craig Silva, had been selected in November. But his firm was hired in December to represent the district on an ongoing basis, causing the family of the student bullied on the bus to question the independence of the inquiry.
Silva was initially hired after the Star-Tribune reported that Amber O’Donnell, bullying victim Caitlin Jonckers’ mother, was considering legal action against the district in relation to the incident. In October, Jonckers was riding on a bus home from school when she was bullied by two girls sitting behind her. The district does not dispute that Jonckers was bullied then, and officials say they’ve punished the girls involved.
But what happened next is the source of the disagreement between district and family. Jonckers and her mother say that the girl was attacked by three students after Jonckers exited the bus. The alleged assault left Jonckers with a concussion and broken toe. Medical records reviewed by the Star-Tribune confirmed the diagnoses.
But the district says bus video does not support this claim and that Jonckers turned to follow one of the girls who bullied her, rather than moving in the opposite direction and toward her home. Officials suspended Jonckers for her role in the fight that followed.
Jonckers spent several weeks out of school because of injuries she sustained during the incident.
The district announced it was hiring Craig Silva’s firm to investigate the incident. The board then decided to hire the firm, with Silva as the point-person, to represent it going forward. Although district officials said they believed the investigation could still be independent and thorough, and that they had used their own attorney for investigations before, O’Donnell publicly questioned the legitimacy of the inquiry.
Verba Echols, the district’s associate superintendent of human resources, told the Star-Tribune on Monday that, while the district disagreed with O’Donnell’s assessment, it decided to honor her request and to hire Copenhaver.
Messages sent to Copenhaver and O’Donnell were not returned Tuesday. A woman at Copenhaver’s firm indicated he was out of the office for the week.
It’s unclear when the investigation, now underway again more than three months after the incident itself took place, will conclude. Superintendent Steve Hopkins had previously shied away from providing a timeline, citing a desire to allow the investigator to work without thought to billable hours.
Echols said there was a desire from some at the district level to put out a response to the investigator’s report when it is finally released. She said regardless of the content of the findings, district officials wanted to be able to have their voice included in the news coverage that will surely follow. But she said it was unclear if the district could legally publish such a statement; that question is being answered currently, she said.