An independent investigation upheld the Natrona County School District’s handling of an October bullying and fighting incident on a Casper school bus that sent a student to the emergency room and ignited a monthslong disagreement between administrators and the student’s family.
The third-party investigation was itself a winding saga. It was initially conducted by Casper attorney Craig Silva, who then handed the work off to another lawyer here after Silva’s firm was permanently hired by the district. The new attorney’s findings were then reviewed and confirmed by a Powell attorney. That lawyer, Tracy Copenhaver, sent a letter detailing the findings to the district and to the families of the students involved.
The investigation was launched in November after the Star-Tribune reported that the injured child’s mother, Amber O’Donnell, was considering legal action against the district. The family told the Star-Tribune that her daughter, Caitlin Jonckers, had been bullied on a school bus by girls calling her names and throwing trash at her. Once she exited the bus, the family said, Caitlin was attacked by several girls. The family provided medical records to the Star-Tribune that showed Caitlin sustained a concussion and a broken foot.
In November, school district officials said that Caitlin had indeed been bullied on the bus and that it had punished the other students for their role in that. However, officials said video evidence reviewed by the district did not substantiate the family’s account that Caitlin was essentially jumped and attacked after she exited the bus. Officials said Caitlin turned away from home to follow one of her bullies after the bus stopped. A fight ensued, and both Caitlin and the other student were suspended for their role in that altercation.
The entire incident was caught on school bus cameras. O’Donnell was allowed to watch the tape, though she could not keep a copy. Citing student privacy, the district denied the Star-Tribune’s request to view the footage.
In his letter detailing the findings of his investigation, Copenhaver indicated that investigators agreed with how the district interpreted the incident.
“It was determined that two students on the bus engaged in bullying, both of whom received disciplinary suspensions from the bus and from school,” Copenhaver wrote. “It was also determined that after exiting the bus, the victim of the bullying on the bus approached one of the students who had engaged in bullying activities and the two students engaged in a brief altercation during which punches were exchanged, which resulted in both students receiving suspensions from school.”
In a statement emailed to the Star-Tribune on Friday, O’Donnell said she wasn’t surprised by the attorney’s findings but that the facts support Caitlin’s account of the event. She noted Copenhaver is the legal counsel for the Wyoming School Board Association.
“And let’s not forget we still have yet to hear any kind of an apology from these girls or their parents, let alone the district,” O’Donnell wrote. “They all really should be ashamed of themselves in the way they have chosen to handle this.”
Tanya Southerland, the district’s spokeswoman, said in a statement that the district had conducted its own investigation that was then reviewed by high-level administrators. The review conducted by the attorneys “concluded the District’s investigation was appropriate and the conclusions drawn from the investigation were appropriate.”
The district announced in mid-November that it had hired Silva to conduct a third-party review of its handling of the incident. O’Donnell, meanwhile, attended school board and Casper City Council meetings to raise her concerns about bullying in the district. She delivered a petition with more than a hundred signatures to the school board, calling for changes to the bullying policy.
In December, the district announced that it had hired Silva’s firm to represent it in a permanent capacity. O’Donnell quickly raised concerns about the independence of the investigation.
Verba Echols, the district’s associate superintendent for human resources, told the Star-Tribune that while officials disagreed with O’Donnell’s suggestion that Silva could not impartially review the district’s investigation, they would honor her request and hand the work to another attorney.
The district then hired Casper lawyer Anna Reeves Olson, who “confirmed that the investigation was appropriate and the conclusions drawn from the investigation were appropriate,” according to the letter from Copenhaver, the Powell attorney who reviewed Olson’s work.
Earlier this week, O’Donnell’s petition was considered by three board members. The trustees determined that the district’s current bullying policy was adequate to meet the needs of Natrona County students.