The Natrona County school board unanimously approved a revamped bullying policy Monday night while taking an early look at formalizing how much it publicly discloses about “staff and student incidents,” eight months after the school district drew criticism for how it handled bullying allegations at Kelly Walsh High.
The work on both policies sprang from that incident, which district officials then characterized as “extreme bullying” but two sources described as waterboarding of a younger student by Kelly Walsh wrestlers. Board member Dana Howie said Monday the board was broadly looking at its bullying processes already, but she acknowledged the Kelly Walsh incident accelerated the board’s work.
The new bullying policy provides a broader definition of what constitutes bullying, intimidation and harassment. It all specifies that the policy applies to incidents that happen at school; administrators had previously told the board they were often confused about when they should become involved, as social media can blur the lines about when incidents begin and end. It strikes language specifically prohibiting sexting and hazing, though Howie said the new policy would still cover both.
In January, as the Star-Tribune reported the Kelly Walsh allegations, the district’s board, attorney, spokeswoman and administrators repeatedly declined to comment on any aspect of the incident, from the school to the age of the students to the date it occurred. They cited student privacy, though the district’s private attorney would later provide many of those details in a letter to the newspaper.
Howie said Monday night that her inability to comment in January “frustrated me from the get go.” Other district officials have expressed similar feelings.
“It wasn’t our idea not to say anything,” she said. “It’s been that way for a long time in this district. ... Not having our voice in it doesn’t help anybody.”
She said she wanted the district — both its elected board members and its hired administrators — to be able to “say as much as we can without violating any laws.”
She mentioned the recent incident in Riverton, where three Riverton High School wrestlers were expelled for an attack on a bus in which they held down younger students and touched them inappropriately. Three wrestlers were later arrested and pleaded guilty to unlawful contact. (District officials have not named the wrestlers who were expelled.)
The Riverton bus attack happened on Jan. 4, the day after the incident at Kelly Walsh. Howie said Fremont County School District No. 25 — which covers Riverton — handled the incident well: Superintendent Terry Snyder spoke to media and continued to throughout the process but stopped short of identifying students or providing specifics.
In a presentation to the board Monday, district spokeswoman Tanya Southerland highlighted Riverton officials’ response to the allegations as a positive example.
Southerland recommended the board release several pieces of information when “applicable” after an incident occurs: the location of the incident; the type of incident; those affected; the potential consequences; any other agencies, like law enforcement, who may be involved; and the group involved, like an athletic team.
Southerland stressed that her recommendations are drafts and have not been run by the district’s private attorney.
In any case, the board was receptive. Trustee Dave Applegate said the work was an “excellent start” and “something we want to move forward with.” Board member Toni Billings said the proposal gave the district the ability to share “facts” about alleged incidents while “protecting kids and our families.” Board chairwoman Rita Walsh called Southerland’s draft policy “beneficial” and “valuable.”
Trustee Debbie McCullar asked Dale Bohren, the Star-Tribune’s publisher who attended the meeting, what his thoughts were. Bohren, who oversaw the newspaper during the waterboarding reporting, praised the school board for considering the policy.
“If you don’t have your voice in it, that’s a major part,” he said. “I sincerely appreciate what you’re doing, and I think it’s going to serve you very well.”
The policy is still far from finished. The board’s policy committee, headed by Howie, will continue to examine the policy after the district’s attorney looks at it. After that, it will be need to be read twice at public board meetings before finally being voted on by the entirety of the board. Howie indicated the board will seek more media feedback, as well.