In the absence of good information, rumors flourish. Fear takes root. Skepticism reigns. People mistrust each other and our shared institutions.
This reality has been apparent in the wake of revelations that a freshman wrestler at Kelly Walsh High School in Casper, Wyo., was attacked by some of his teammates. The boy’s family maintains he was waterboarded. The Natrona County School District called it an incident of extreme bullying. The district attorney concluded it was an act of inappropriate hazing, but not a crime.
Without transparency, without an open, honest conversation about what did and did not happen, it is no surprise that an environment of mistrust exists between the community and the leaders of our education system.
That mistrust can and should be laid at the feet of the leadership of the Natrona County School District. And this is not the first recent instance where the district’s focus on controlling information rather than keeping the community informed has caused problems.
The Casper Star-Tribune learned about the waterboarding allegations in January. A reporter contacted the district for information and the district responded with a brief statement. The district said it was aware of an “Isolated incident involving a violation of the student code of conduct.” An investigation had been conducted, the district said, and consequences were implemented. Because the incident involved a student, the district said it could provide no other information.
Take a moment to consider this position. The district acknowledged only that A) at some time in its history B) someone violated the student code of conduct and C) the matter was investigated and dealt with.
This information is so vague as to be useless. How many different instances in a single school year could the above facts pertain to? A violation of the student code of conduct could run the gamut from a dress code issue to an outright assault. In the statement, there is no mention of the time the incident took place, the school where it occurred, what specific steps the district took to address the matter and how it was resolved.
After repeated inquiries, a district spokeswoman acknowledged that the incident in question involved extreme bullying. But she refused to provide even basic information that parents, students and teachers would need to make informed decisions about their own safety, the safety of loved ones and the actions of teachers and other educational leaders. Ask yourself: If you were the parent of an eighth-grade athlete, wouldn’t you want to know whether an attack had taken place in the program your son or daughter might participate in next year? More importantly, wouldn’t you want to know how it was handled by educators?
District officials and lawyers maintain privacy protections have tied their hands. We agree that individual students should not be named in such situations — except in cases where they’ve been criminally charged as adults. But it is absurd to suggest that releasing basic information would allow the general public to determine the identities of the students involved. At one point, a district spokeswoman refused even to specify whether those involved were high schoolers — even while acknowledging there are roughly 4,000 in the district. To suggest this could possibly lead to a privacy violation is absurd.
The district has tried before to limit the flow of information on a controversial subject that is of critical importance to our community.
When they announced earlier this year that they were voting to close four schools, officials did so with little transparency. They announced the closures late Friday afternoon, giving themselves a weekend before having to face the backlash of the public. District officials claimed the late notice was designed to give the public time to process the information. But by waiting all they did was create a weekend of uncertainty. Officials never held a public forum about the closures. Instead, they hid behind the structure of board meetings, which don’t allow for a dialogue between the public and the board.
It has become clear that the district isn’t acting with the goal of keeping students and parents informed. The goal seems to be protecting the district and controlling the conversation. These decisions only widen the gulf between officials and the public.
In a democracy, people need good information to make informed decisions. Parents need information to make the right choices for their children. Taxpayers need information to ensure that our institutions are doing what we pay them to do.
District officials should take a step back and consider what they’ve sown. This mistrust is of their own making.
-- Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune