The Natrona County School District will conduct a top-to-bottom review of its bullying policies with an eye toward quick and transparent responses, officials said Monday, less than a month after allegations surfaced that a student was waterboarded at Kelly Walsh High School.
“There is a policy, but getting to the bottom of it, it takes some time, and that’s really not good,” board chairwoman Rita Walsh said during the board’s pre-meeting work session Monday night. “I think it has to be immediate.”
Board members called for a number of changes and improvements to the district’s existing policy and response weeks after a number of people criticized officials for their handling of the waterboarding allegations and for bullying incidents in general. Superintendent Steve Hopkins said officials would conduct a review of the district’s “full gamut” of bullying policies and responses.
He said some changes could be made quickly and others may take some time but that the district was committed to the work.
Trustee Dave Applegate called for better transparency by the district as administrators investigate bullying allegations. Last month, officials repeatedly declined to provide any details related to allegations that a KW wrestler was held down and waterboarded in the school’s locker room.
The district attorney declined to press charges related to the allegations and said the victim at least partially consented to the alleged attack. The prosecutor characterized the incident as one of inappropriate hazing. A relative of the victim, meanwhile, denied that characterization and said the victim was an unwilling participant throughout the entire incident.
The alleged attack, first reported by the Star-Tribune in mid-January, sparked a public backlash and a broader conversation about bullying within the school district. On Monday night, the board met and held its first public meeting in which they discussed the next steps to address bullying.
Board members reviewed data from across the district, which showed that there have been 353 incidents of bullying, cyber bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and threats reported so far this academic year. Officials projected that there will be 565 total incidents reported by the end of this year, or roughly 3.23 per day across the district’s nearly three dozen schools.
The district also projected that 594 students would be involved in incidents across those five categories. That figure does not include alleged victims. Based off of a districtwide enrollment of 12,975 students, the projections show that roughly 4.5 percent of students will be involved in bullying-related incidents that are reported to officials.
While both numbers are down from last year — 620 incidents by 700 students — board members still said they were too high.
“I wouldn’t come to the conclusion that it’s a good thing that we have over 500 incidents of bullying in our district,” Applegate said. “That’s a concerning number because that means over 500 students had an incident that caused them to be scared or feel threatened or something happened. The one thing I would say is we have room for improvement.”
Applegate laid out suggestions for improving transparency when it comes to bullying allegations. For one, he recommended making it clear how the district investigates incidents and when it brings in officials from outside of the school in which the incident happened. He said the district should publish the number of bullying allegations to its website, as well as the number of instructors who’ve been suspended or disciplined.
Tom Ernst, the director of student support services, said he was already working on responding to some of Applegate’s ideas.
“I just think the more we can try to be transparent about what is happening in the district, without providing any personal information that we’re not allowed to provide by law, would be very beneficial,” Applegate concluded.
Other trustees called for more training and education for students and staff related to bullying. Angela Coleman said members had received an email offering them training.
During the board’s regular meeting after the work session, trustee Clark Jensen said the bullying issue had been the most difficult situation he’s had to deal with as a board member. Without specifying what incident he was referring to, he said what was proper discipline was a tough decision for coaches and administrators who “have four lives hanging in your hands.”
“Finally, as far as plan to make it better, believe me this is as troubling to us as it is to you,” Jensen said. “This is not something that we’re going to sweep under the carpet and say that’s just some dumb kid and we’ll hope the public goes away.”