Two special education instructors at Manor Heights Elementary exchanged text messages mocking multiple students, including one message that included a photo of a child’s naked buttocks and another exchange that suggested the same child should be hosed down because she was “filthy.”
Neither educator was removed from the classroom by the district after an investigation last year, but both have since left the school. One, Jocelyn Norcross, left in late January, roughly a week after the Star-Tribune contacted the Natrona County School District about the messages. The other instructor, Jessica Westbrook, left in mid-January, before the Star-Tribune’s inquiry.
Citing privacy, officials would not detail what disciplinary actions were taken against the two educators. The district also gave conflicting accounts of when — and to what extent — parents were notified of the messages after the district officials and state authorities became aware of the educators’ conduct last fall.
Reached by phone Friday morning, Norcross declined to comment. A phone number for Westbrook indicated her phone was turned off or out of service, and a Facebook message sent to her Friday seeking comment was not returned.
Copies of the texts, sent to a group chat of three instructors who worked in the Manor Heights’ special education classroom, were obtained by the Star-Tribune. They were provided by a source who received the messages and was granted anonymity to speak about the conversations.
Messages exchanged in the group chat in the spring of 2018 refer to at least two students in the special education classroom.
In April, Norcross texted the other two instructors about a student’s naked backside, visible as the child sat slumped forward in a chair. Westbrook wrote back that Norcross had “a great view,” adding a laughing face emoji.
Norcross sent a photo of the student to the group chat and wondered how the child couldn’t feel that her buttocks were exposed.
“I’m sure she can, she just doesn’t give a f—-, lol,” Westbrook replied.
The instructors mocked the same student in May. Westbrook wrote to the group chat that the student “looks exceptionally filthy today.”
“I don’t think she’s showered for a solid week,” she added, followed by a green, ill-faced emoji.
“Diffuser on high today,” Norcross replied.
“I wanna spray her down with the hose,” Westbrook wrote back.
In a video of a second student sent to the group chat, a hand is visible holding a door handle while a child screams from inside, “Open the door!”
Other messages sent in the group chat appeared to disparage a mother of two autistic children. The woman had posted to Facebook asking for vacation advice for her family. Norcross and Westbrook messaged about how the woman’s younger child “is on the spectrum” and wondered how the woman was able to travel “considering she doesn’t actually have an income that isn’t supplied by the taxpayers.” More photos in the chat detail behaviors and language used by the students.
In another exchange, Norcross complained that she hated one unnamed student’s “reboots” — when a child is having a behavioral episode and is placed in a room to calm down — because the student would just stare at her. Westbrook encouraged Norcross to stick her tongue out at the student.
“I’ll back up that it never happened lol,” Westbrook wrote.
“I don’t know what I would do without you,” Norcross replied.
Records show Westbrook resigned effective Jan. 11, and Norcross submitted her resignation at the end of January. But neither was removed from the classroom by the district after officials became aware of the messages in the fall of 2018. A human resources staff member was shown the messages in September by another staff member who received them.
“The thought that my kid’s emotional or physical deficits would be a source of mockery in the classroom by the person who’s there to protect them is horrifying,” the source who shared the messages with the Star-Tribune said. “On a fundamental level it’s horrifying.”
Verba Echols, the district’s associate superintendent for human resources, told the Star-Tribune on Jan. 25 that after officials learned of the photo and video, they immediately contacted the state’s Department of Family Services. She said the department told district officials within 24 hours that the conduct did not rise to the level that would involve the agency. Echols said the district then initiated its own investigation.
“I was made aware of this incident this fall. Absolutely we do not condone or find this behavior anywhere near appropriate,” she said in an interview. She called it a “lapse in professional judgment” and a “violation” of the “essence of what you would expect of a classroom teacher.”
The district’s investigation concluded in December, but it’s unclear what action the district took. What is known is that neither instructor was removed from the classroom as a result. Echols declined to provide specifics about any punishment dispensed by the district, citing privacy concerns that barred her from discussing personnel matters. But she said the “behavior has stopped and it has been corrected.”
“Did we take action? Absolutely,” she said in an interview before Norcross submitted her resignation. “Are we confident that action is securely in place? Absolutely. ... It was swift, it was aligned, and we continue to monitor very, very closely.”
Asked if she believed the district acted appropriately, Echols said yes. She said that there was no indication from the investigation that the instructors who shared the messages were otherwise negligent in their duties or that they had sent the photo and video elsewhere.
“It doesn’t change that it happened,” she said. “It’s never going to even insinuate that this was OK.”
Echols refrained from using the instructors’ or students’ names. She referred to the late-January resignation of a “certified” instructor — Norcross, records show — and said that teacher had chosen to resign. Echols speculated that the incident was “personally upsetting” to her.
In the Jan. 25 interview, Echols told the Star-Tribune that “parents were absolutely notified” during the district’s fall 2018 investigation.
But the stepfather of the student depicted screaming in the video told the Star-Tribune that the parents were not contacted until the last week of January, when someone from Manor Heights called to notify them that the newspaper had obtained a video of their daughter. They had not seen the footage and were not aware of its contents until a reporter described it.
On advice from an attorney, the family declined to comment further.
It remains unclear if and when the family of the student who was photographed with her backside exposed was contacted. Multiple attempts in recent weeks to contact the student’s parents were unsuccessful.
Because the students are minors, the Star-Tribune has chosen not to name them or detail their specific educational needs to avoid identifying them. Similarly, the Star-Tribune will not name their parents and will not publish the photo or video of the students, as they are potentially identifiable and show the students in embarrassing and distressing situations.
In a followup interview, Echols said she was told by Manor Heights principal Kent Thompson that the parents had been notified in the fall, when the district investigated. She said she learned that was not true after she spoke with the Star-Tribune. The parents of the student in the video have since watched the footage with Echols.
“I felt misled, and I can guarantee you those parents felt misled,” Echols said. “I was very much as concerned and frustrated as the parents were, and Dr. Kent Thompson has since apologized (to Echols and to the parents) for any perceived miscommunication.”
“I was under the impression that when I say, ‘Parents have been communicated with, and I have dates and times from the principal when they actually visited, up to and including face-to-face visits,’ I felt that I should be able to correctly understand that to mean that (Thompson has) been completely clear,” she continued. “And the parents did not feel at all as if he had been completely clear.”
She added that there were “no excuses” for the district not communicating with the parents and the parents receiving “less than the truth.” The parents of the student in the video “did not understand” the situation until they saw the video last month, she said.
Asked if the parents of the student photographed with her backside exposed were informed fully in the fall, Echols indicated she wasn’t sure.
“Now I’m saying (to Thompson), ‘You go back and make sure this is crystal clear,’” she said. She called the failure to communicate “unsettling” and said the incident called her integrity into question because she had provided inaccurate information to the Star-Tribune.
Echols added that Thompson was “desperately sorry and embarrassed” that the parents were not aware of what had happened. She defended him as an educator of integrity. On Friday, district spokeswoman Tanya Southerland confirmed that Thompson had “gone back and communicated with parents involved.”
Still, it remains unclear if Thompson ever notified the parents of the student in the video before the Star-Tribune’s inquiry. Echols said she was not sure. The parents’ initial statement indicated that they had heard nothing about a video tape in the fall.
No criminal case
The source who shared the messages with the Star-Tribune also contacted the Casper Police Department and the state’s Division of Criminal Investigations in January about the photo and video. The latter agency directed the source to Casper law enforcement.
After initially saying he was unfamiliar with the case, Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen said earlier this month that he had consulted with the police department and learned that police received a report but that the agency found it non-criminal and decided not to send recommended charges to the District Attorney’s office.
Casper police received a report of the incident and investigated, Sgt. Joey Wilhelm told the Star-Tribune earlier this month. Wilhelm, who oversees the agency’s detectives, said police determined the alleged conduct did not meet the components of any Wyoming crime.
Star-Tribune staff writer Shane Sanderson contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: Because of a conflict, Star-Tribune editor Joshua Wolfson was not involved in the editing or reporting of this story. Additional supervision was provided by Kathy Best, the editor of the Missoulian in Montana.