Natrona County School District officials launched a week-long investigation into an incident at Kelly Walsh High School one day after a freshman on the school’s wrestling team was reportedly waterboarded by his teammates.
The district began the investigation on Jan. 4 and spoke with 22 people over the following week, according to a letter from the district’s private attorney to the Star-Tribune’s lawyer. The alleged victim, his parents, the alleged perpetrators, school employees and others were all interviewed as part of the investigation, school district attorney Kathleen Dixon wrote.
Shortly after, district and Kelly Walsh officials discussed waterboarding and an incident at the school, emails obtained by the Star-Tribune show.
The letter and emails offer the most detailed glimpse into how the district responded to the waterboarding allegations. The new information comes weeks after the Star-Tribune reported on Jan. 20 that the freshman wrestler was held down and waterboarded in the Kelly Walsh locker room. The district at the time refused to provide any details related to the incident, and Natrona County District Attorney Michael Blonigen said he would not press charges.
In a Feb. 27 letter to the Star-Tribune’s attorney, Dixon confirmed for the first time that there was an incident at Kelly Walsh on Jan. 3 and that administrators learned of it on Jan. 4.
“Administrators interviewed 22 individuals who were witnesses or potential witnesses, including the alleged victim, his parents, the alleged perpetrators, school employees and others, from January 4, 2018—January 11, 2018,” Dixon wrote. “The investigation included questions to determine not only the factors of the incident, but to determine if similar incidents had occurred; none were identified.”
She added that an investigator from Kelly Walsh concluded school policy had been violated and that “offending students” were punished. The letter does not describe the nature of the punishment.
The attorney’s letter does not provide details of the incident itself, nor does it mention waterboarding.
Emails offer partial view of district response
However, emails between district officials do use the term. In a Jan. 12 email, Tom Ernst, the district’s safe schools director, asked about the “waterboarding incident.”
“It’s my understanding that there was only one event and it happened at the school,” Ernst wrote. “Sorry for the questions but I feel way out of the loop on this.”
AJ Nathan, the athletic director for Kelly Walsh, wrote back that there “was only one event, on January 3rd, that took place at the school.”
The email was also sent to Brad Diller, Kelly Walsh’s principal; Walt Wilcox, an associate superintendent; and Sydney Webb, the district’s head of transportation.
Messages sent to Diller, Wilcox, Ernst and Nathan seeking comment were not returned Tuesday.
Nathan’s vague reference to an incident at the school is consistent with previous public responses by the district. Spokeswoman Tanya Southerland did not deny or comment on the waterboarding incident when asked about it in mid-January. When pressed about that allegation, she said the district had become “aware of an isolated incident involving a violation of the student code of conduct.” She refused to comment on what happened and when, the age of the students involved, the school at which the incident occurred, and what punishment those involved faced.
In a separate, undated email, Travis Peak, the Kelly Walsh wrestling team coach, sent Nathan a copy of the wrestling team’s roster. He wrote that he had been “busy with the locker room thing.” He told Nathan he tried to call him “to talk about it.”
In another email shown to the Star-Tribune, Peak told a relative of the alleged victim that he was “very sorry that this incident has rocked your family so hard and completely changed your mind about the program.”
“I also want you to know that we are doing our best to raise good young men and not just wrestlers,” he wrote from an email account that matches the one obtained in the Star-Tribune’s record request.
An email sent to Peak seeking comment was not returned Tuesday.
Sudden change in policy
Though Dixon’s letter doesn’t specifically mention waterboarding, it represents the most detail the school district has publicly provided about the incident. Southerland told the Star-Tribune in mid-January that an incident of “extreme bullying” had occurred within the district. But she and Dixon declined to provide any other information. They said providing those details would violate student privacy.
It’s unclear why the district’s private attorney was able to provide new information to the Star-Tribune. District officials previously asserted privacy concerns prevented them from releasing the very details the letter later confirmed and they had cited statutes that, they said, tied their hands.
The waterboarding allegations have prompted a broader discussion within the school district about bullying. District officials, at the direction of the school board, have said they will conduct a top-down review of the district’s bullying policy. While the board has not publicly confirmed the incident took place, they’ve expressed their dismay about the reports.
At a board meeting in January, members of the public criticized the district’s handling of the waterboarding incident. Trustee Ray Catellier told the audience that “it’s embarrassing for us as well.” Fellow board member Dana Howie said there was more to the story than had been released publicly, though she did not elaborate.
In a heated argument with a parent after the meeting, trustee Kevin Christopherson defended himself by saying he “did not do it,” apparently in reference to the waterboarding incident.
No board members denied the accusations.