The Natrona County School District is refusing to release any details about a case of what a spokeswoman called “extreme bullying.”
A district statement given to the Star-Tribune on Tuesday said officials were “aware of an isolated incident involving a violation of the student code of conducts.” The district launched an investigation, and a student or students were disciplined as a result.
District spokeswoman Tanya Southerland confirmed that the incident involved “extreme bullying.” But she and the district have repeatedly refused to confirm any other details since Tuesday afternoon. Southerland declined to specify the ages or grade levels of the students involved, their school, how many students were involved, what happened or when it occurred.
It’s also unclear how the district investigated the incident, how long the investigation lasted and what discipline was implemented. The lack of information provided makes it impossible to confirm that the incident was isolated.
Southerland cited student privacy in declining to provide more details and said that revealing any information — even the students’ grade levels — could identify them.
There are at least 12,975 students in Natrona County. It is the second-largest school district in Wyoming in terms of student population.
Pressed for more details, Southerland declined again in a follow-up email.
“We advised that we would consult with counsel to determine if further details could be released,” Southerland wrote. “Based on student privacy protection obligations, we are unable to answer further questions concerning this matter.”
Star-Tribune editor Joshua Wolfson said the lack of details robs the public of its ability to know what’s happening in its schools and to make informed decisions about education here. Wolfson’s spouse is employed by the district and his two children attend area schools.
“In this case, parents, teachers, kids are going to want to know about bullying and hazing, not for salacious reasons but to know, are these issues being addressed?” Wolfson said. “How can I as a parent make good choices for my child as far as what schools to attend, what programs to participate in, if I don’t know basic information?”
He added that the Star-Tribune “has no desire to cause further harm in this situation.”
“I don’t understand how narrowing it down to one of 4,000 students could be a privacy concern,” Wolfson continued, referring to the district’s refusal to say whether the students were in high school. “That doesn’t pass the smell test.”
A message sent to Southerland seeking comment for this article was not returned Wednesday. The district’s attorney, Kathleen Dixon, reiterated in an email the privacy concerns officials have cited. She said providing more details would run afoul of the Wyoming Public Records Act and the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
“As Tanya Southerland has shared with the Star Tribune several times over the last 24 hours, the District believes that it has provided all of the information that it can lawfully provide concerning a student event which resulted in investigation and appropriate response under school district policy, as well as the code of conduct,” she said in the message.
Bruce Moats, a media attorney who has represented the Star-Tribune, said the lack of transparency leaves the community to wonder how the district handled the investigation.
“People trust their students to the school district and it’s important that parents and others know that the school district is reacting to these things appropriately,” he said, adding that he “didn’t understand” how the details the Star-Tribune is seeking would identify students.
He added that courts in other states — including Montana — have said that reports on similar information can be released as long as names are redacted.
Moats said that in recent years, public institutions have “extended the law as far as possible” to prevent information from being released to the public. That trend has accelerated, he said, since the election of Donald Trump in November 2016.
“It’s as bad as any time in my 35-year history as a reporter and as an attorney who represents reporters,” he said.
This is not the first public incident involving bullying the school district has faced in recent months. In September, a mom told the school board that a student had threatened to shoot her daughter and other students at Woods Learning Center.
The mother said she was frustrated that the district had not notified parents about the threats made by the student, who was investigated by police and was determined to not be a threat. The district had posted an ambiguous message on Facebook about a threat to Woods, but the details were unknown until the mother spoke to the school board.
Star-Tribune staff writer Brady Oltmans contributed to this report.