Natrona County’s top prosecutor will not file charges related to a recent incident of bullying at Kelly Walsh High School, saying it was “inappropriate hazing” rather than actual waterboarding. However, the family of the boy who was attacked maintains he was waterboarded by his wrestling teammates.
The boy’s family said older teammates waterboarded the freshman wrestler in the locker room after practice on Jan. 3. Police investigated an incident of bullying at the school and said last week they considered it to be a crime and forwarded their investigation to the district attorney’s office, though the department declined to say whether it was the same incident. A Natrona County School District spokeswoman acknowledged officials had investigated an incident of “extreme bullying,” but did not offer any details, including what school it occurred at.
District Attorney Michael Blonigen was the first official to offer a detailed account of the Jan. 3 incident. He said the actions did not amount to waterboarding.
Blonigen said the victim, who was a member of the Kelly Walsh wrestling team at the time, told police that when he walked into the locker room after practice he heard some teammates say that they should waterboard him. The victim struggled while at least three wrestlers pinned him down, put a towel over his face and talked about urinating in his mouth. The wrestlers then dribbled water on his face, according to the district attorney.
The victim then pulled off the towel they had placed on his face and, after seeing it was not urine, voluntarily laid down again. He then placed the towel back onto his own face before others poured water onto his face for five seconds, Blonigen said, citing police interviews with both the victim and others involved.
Blonigen said he “really didn’t have any idea” why the victim allegedly acquiesced to the second part of the incident. The district attorney said he didn’t think the incident was pleasant for the victim and that he “certainly didn’t welcome this” but that the victim’s alleged compliance with the incident negated any potential assault charge.
Family maintains boy was waterboarded
A family member of the victim, who was with the boy during his interview with police, strongly denied that description of the event. She said at no point did the victim consent to the attack, and that she spoke with the victim again Thursday and had him retell the story.
Asked if the victim told police that any part of the interaction was consensual or voluntary, as Blonigen stated, the family member replied, “Oh my god, no.” The victim maintained that he struggled and was scared throughout, she said. He tried to climb over the lockers, and it took several wrestlers to hold his arms, legs, head and chest.
But the family member had an idea how investigators could have thought the boy had consented to part of the attack.
At first, the attackers allegedly held the victim’s arms behind his back while he was pinned to the bench. The victim then told his alleged attackers that “if you’re going to do this, at least let me be comfortable,” according to the family member. The teammates then released his arms from behind his back but continued to restrain him on the bench.
She went on to describe which wrestlers held down which parts of the victim’s body throughout the attack, adding that the information was described to her by the victim.
The victim and members of his family met with Kelly Walsh officials and a school response officer the day after the incident.
The victim’s parents have declined interview requests, but authorized the family member to speak to the Star-Tribune. The newspaper has decided not to name the family, the victim or the alleged assailants because of juvenile privacy concerns. The boy no longer attends the school because of the incident.
Blonigen’s office, the Casper Police Department and the Natrona County School District had all previously declined to offer details, citing student and juvenile privacy laws.
Blonigen said Thursday that he typically doesn’t discuss cases involving juveniles but felt it was necessary in this case given the “uproar” in the community.
“Kids do this, they have done it for years,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it’s right though, and they shouldn’t be doing it. Usually most folks as they get older they figure that out — that you don’t pick on the guy who’s smaller than you. But particularly with athletic teams you do see this stuff and sometimes it gets far more out of hand than this, of course, that’s when we really have problems. But this seemed to fall within that inappropriate form of hazing sort of area, like the school treated it.”
Differences in the accounts
Both Blonigen and the victim’s accounts agree on the first part of the attack. Wrestling teammates held the victim down, placed a towel on his face and threatened to urinate on him. The others then dribbled water on him.
Blonigen and the boy’s family differ on what happened next.
The family member said that victim resisted while the others placed a towel on his face and poured water over him for what the boy estimated was five seconds.
“(The victim) said when they held him down, he was talking to them the whole time. He was telling them to stop,” the family member said.
But Blonigen said the boy stopped fighting, was not restrained and even placed the towel back on his own face during the second part of the attack.
“If you consent to an assault, then it’s not an assault,” Blonigen said. He added that it doesn’t appear that the incident was a common practice within the wrestling team.
The district attorney went on to dispute any part of the incident was waterboarding, though he said the alleged assailants used the phrase before the attack began.
Blonigen said he could only speculate why the victim stopped fighting.
“Maybe the kid just thought, ‘I’ll get along with it, it’ll be over with,’” Blonigen said.
He also said that the victim told police that he “wanted to see what it was like.”
“He kind of laughed about it,” Blonigen said of the victim.
Blonigen’s statements casting doubt on the narrative described by the family and in the broader community are not the first time a public official has suggested there’s more to the story. School board member Dana Howie said as much Monday, and other trustees voiced similar concerns.
Howie told the crowd that if the district could provide its story, it would, but legal strictures have tied district officials’ hands.
Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann