A small group of parents again stood before the Natrona County school board Monday night and recounted the bullying their children experienced.
Two — Amber O’Donnell and Justin Hathaway — had appeared before. O’Donnell’s daughter was bullied on a school bus and ended up in the emergency room following a fight after the students disembarked. O’Donnell and her daughter, Caitlin Jonckers, have said Jonckers was attacked off the bus. The district maintains that because Jonckers was involved in the fight at all, she had to be suspended.
Jonckers, who spoke in front of the Casper City Council last month, also spoke to the school board Monday. She told the nine trustees that the “school district does not seem to care about (student) safety” and that “confronting a bully should not be deemed mutual combat.”
When she spoke at the last November meeting, O’Donnell presented a petition to the board with several changes she and more than a hundred signatories supported. On Monday, that petition was referred to the board’s policy committee, which has worked on a number of bullying-related issues in recent months.
Last month, the district launched a third-party investigation, run by local attorney Craig Silva, into the incident that is still ongoing. Superintendent Steve Hopkins told the Star-Tribune the review was triggered after O’Donnell suggested to the newspaper that she may pursue litigation against the district.
Jonckers and O’Donnell expressed doubt Monday night about the legitimacy of the investigation. Earlier that evening, the board announced it was hiring Silva’s law firm to provide legal counsel on all matters. Hopkins said he was not concerned that the review would be impartial.
O’Donnell said she was denied a copy of the video showing the incident, which she’s been fighting to obtain for weeks. A letter from Silva to O’Donnell dated Monday said that the district “has complied with the law as required on this point,” related to the decision not to release the video.
“I know you feel frustrated in many respects during this process, and this letter will probably increase your frustration,” Silva wrote.
Hathaway spoke to the board after Jonckers and said his daughter’s friend had been attacked after she got off a school bus recently. The friend “took” the other student “to the ground,” he said, and told the bully to stop. The friend let the bully up, and as she walked away, the bully hit her multiple times, Hathaway said.
“Last I heard, the girl who defended herself almost was being treated like the person who threw all the punches,” he told the board. He added that he told his own children that if they get in trouble for standing up for themselves, they’d be rewarded with “pizza and ice cream.”
Other parents followed. One, Kenneth Bates, said the schools had responded well when he and his wife expressed concern about their child being bullied.
For nearly a year, bullying has been a publicly simmering topic in the Natrona County School District that’s boiled over repeatedly. After the Star-Tribune reported an incident of what the district deemed “extreme bullying” at Kelly Walsh High in January, parents and students came forward to share their experiences.
The district later announced it would review its bullying policy. Its coaches have convened a committee to study the athletic code of conduct. Administrators on Monday also unveiled a regimented discipline guideline that sets certain punishments for certain actions — fighting, bullying, alcohol or drug use, making threats.
Near the end of the board meeting, members responded to the parents’ concerns. Dana Howie, who chairs the board’s policy committee, said the board had just approved a policy but that “doesn’t mean it’s perfect.” She said she supported the idea of a parent survey, which O’Donnell suggested.
“We are absolutely taking this seriously,” she said.
The other trustees echoed Howie. Angela Coleman apologized to Jonckers.
Kevin Christopherson told the small crowd that when he was a kid, he would fight his bullies. But there are consequences for hitting back, he warned.
“If you’re going to stand up to the bully, you have to stand up to the consequences,” he said. “He may be tougher than you, and you may end up getting expelled.”
He urged the parents to stop telling their kids to fight bullies, that violence in schools was too prevalent these days.
Hopkins spoke last. He thanked everyone for attending and told the crowd, the board, the assembled administrators and various media outlets that “we do get better when we have input.”