The parents of a student depicted in a photo that exposed her buttocks and who was mocked by her special education instructors at Manor Heights said they were repeatedly misled by the principal of the school, even after district officials pressed the administrator to be “crystal clear” about the contents of text messages exchanged by the educators.
“I feel infuriated, betrayed, misled,” the girl’s father said in an interview last week. The Star-Tribune granted the parents anonymity to protect their daughter’s identity.
“None of this was brought up to us,” the mother added.
The parents’ statements came a few days after the Star-Tribune reported that two special education instructors shared a photo of the parents’ daughter in which the student is slumped over a desk with her bare buttocks exposed. The same instructors also complained that the student was “filthy” and that they wanted to “spray her down with the hose.”
The text exchanges, which included further mockery of students and families, were revealed to Natrona County School District officials in the fall. The district investigated but did not remove either educator from the classroom. Any discipline doled out is unclear; the district has declined to provide specifics, citing privacy concerns.
Both educators resigned from the district in January. The paraprofessional in the classroom that sent some of the messages, Jessica Westbrook, left in mid-January. Teacher Jocelyn Norcross resigned in late January, after the Star-Tribune’s inquiry began.
Norcross previously told the Star-Tribune she “can’t” comment. When asked why, she repeated that she “just can’t.” Westbrook did not respond to a previous attempt to contact her.
The parents of the student in the photo were shocked to learn the contents of the image, the details of which they say were mischaracterized by Manor Heights Principal Kent Thompson. The image is focused entirely on their daughter and includes accompanying texts of the teachers crudely mocking the view of the student’s buttocks. The parents had not seen the image until shown by the Star-Tribune, which obtained the texts, image and video through a source who received them.
The Star-Tribune granted anonymity to that source to allow the individual to speak freely about the messages and environment at Manor Heights. The newspaper similarly granted anonymity to the parents and will not publish specific details of the students’ educational needs or current educational situation.
Verba Echols, the district’s associate superintendent for human resources, acknowledged Friday that parents were not notified in the fall. She said Thompson offered the family the opportunity to see the photo and the family did not respond. She added that “there’s belief that they did not understand or (Thompson) was not clear.” She said she was inquiring further.
“If they feel that he was not crystal clear, then candidly he wasn’t,” Echols said. “Communication is only clear if it is clear to the recipients. We take their concerns very seriously.”
After being shown the photo by the Star-Tribune, the parents said it was worse than they had imagined after reading a newspaper article about the text exchanges published last week. Both were momentarily speechless as they looked at the photo. The father closed his eyes and shook his head.
Beyond being outraged, the parents were confused. The texts derisively called their daughter “filthy,” but the mother regularly wakes up early to do the child’s hair. They couldn’t understand why the girl’s buttocks were allowed to be exposed; they had previously provided a belt to the school to avoid that exact situation.
They compared the instructor’s comment about hosing their daughter down to the type of treatment an animal would be subjected to.
District explains and backpedals
In an interview in mid-January, Echols told the Star-Tribune that the parents of the student in the photo and the parents of a separate student heard in a video screaming to be let out of a room “were absolutely notified.” But Echols later acknowledged that was not entirely truthful after the parents of the student in the video told the Star-Tribune they had never been contacted in the fall.
“That’s what I believed to have happened based on the expectation that administrators clearly communicate with parents or guardians that are in their buildings,” she said Friday.
Echols, in a followup interview late last month, said the source of the mischaracterization was Thompson, who she said was embarrassed and apologetic. She defended him as an educator of integrity and called the messages and photos unacceptable and inappropriate. Asked Friday if the latest revelations changed Thompson’s situation, Echols declined to comment.
According to the parents of the student depicted in the photo, Thompson came to their house in mid-January, after the Star-Tribune began its inquiry, and told them that a former employee had dug up a photo of their daughter. He allegedly did not discuss the exact contents of the photo or the text exchanges.
The parents of the student in the video say they, too, were told in mid-January that a former staff member was trying to cause trouble and that this staff member had provided the video to the newspaper.
Echols said she went back to Thompson in late January after it was apparent parents were not fully aware of the situation and told him to be “crystal clear.”
But he continued to obfuscate the truth, the parents of the child in the photo said. When he returned to that family’s home, he allegedly told them the photo was a group photo of multiple students and that their daughter’s buttocks were “partially exposed.” The parents understood that to mean the students in the class posed for a photo. He apparently did not discuss the text exchanges, and it’s unclear if he was aware of them.
Asked if she could corroborate either version of this interaction, Echols said she wasn’t there and “it’s terribly difficult for me to speculate.”
“They are due clear communication and transparency,” she added.
The parents of the student in the video, after telling the Star-Tribune that they were never contacted until January, declined to further comment on advice from an attorney.
A message left for Thompson on Friday afternoon was not returned. A district spokeswoman typically handles comments for media from staff.
Finding out via an article
The parents of the student in the photo said they had not read the article until Tuesday and were shocked by what was described in it versus what they were told by Thompson. The newspaper had previously attempted to contact them multiple times, but through a miscommunication the family had not responded. Besides, they said, the description by Thompson of a disgruntled employee trying to make trouble made them underestimate the situation.
They said Thompson called them after the story was published, “profusely apologizing.” Both parents said they liked Manor Heights and were not trying to get the principal fired. But they wanted repercussions for the instructors who sent the photo and messages, as well as policy changes and better screening of job applicants.
They say that they can never show the article or photo to their daughter, who would be devastated. Norcross, who took the photo, was one of their daughter’s favorite instructors. Their child has multiple emotional disabilities, and Norcross worked well with her.
“You trust these people with your children,” the father said, adding that he had a hard time understanding how Norcross could both support and mock their daughter.
Echols said she hoped other parents would come forward with concerns and that the district would take the situation as a learning experience.
The family said they were coming forward because the public deserved to know and because they did not know how many other children in similar situations were mocked or photographed in a similar manner.
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.