For much of 2018, the Natrona County School District dealt with bullying, whether that was in the form of allegations or policy meant to reduce them.
In January, two sources close to a Kelly Walsh wrestler said he had been held down and waterboarded by older teammates. The district provided few details — a decision that district officials would later lament — and District Attorney Michael Blonigen disputed the account and declined to press charges. A source close to the family rejected Blonigen’s conclusion, and the district never publicly disputed the Star-Tribune’s reporting.
The school board responded to a wave of criticism and more bullying reports by announcing a top-down review of their policies. It held a scarcely attended public forum in the fall before passing a policy that better outlined bullying. It then released discipline guidelines that set districtwide standards for punishments for a variety of offenses. It convened an ad hoc committee of coaches and administrators to study the district’s athletic code of conduct.
Finally, in direct response to its decision not to comment in January, the school board proposed and approved a policy that would free officials to provide more details of significant staff or student events. In just the few weeks that it’s been in effect, it’s been utilized multiple times.
Still, the issue has proven to be a thorn in the district’s side, dominating headlines and TV reports time after time. Immediately after the Kelly Walsh incident, a number of people shared their own bullying experiences at a school board meeting. An African-American woman said her children were racially abused at two different schools.
In November, a mother told multiple media outlets that her daughter had been bullied on a school bus and later attacked by three girls, which sent her daughter to the hospital.
Generally, the district and the school board have not publicly responded to these allegations. But in this case, the district, utilizing its new transparency policy, disputed some of that family’s characterization. They acknowledged that the girl was bullied but said a video tape of the incident did not support the entirety of her account. The district declined to allow the Star-Tribune to view the video.
In this instance, the district has taken a step it hadn’t recently: It hired an independent third-party investigator to examine its response. The district told the Star-Tribune that local lawyer Craig Silva was retained because the mother had told the newspaper that she was considering a lawsuit.
That issue is ongoing. As of Dec. 20, Silva had not completed his review, and the family had appeared twice before the school board and once before the Casper City Council. The mother has already said she doesn’t believe the investigation will be truly independent, a position she doubled down on after the district hired Silva’s law firm to represent it going forward.