Parents, students criticize school district over blackmail case


CHEYENNE — Parents who say their daughters were victims in a blackmail case involving a Burns High School student say the school district has been slow to respond to the incident, keeping the student in classes and in extracurricular activities with some of the alleged victims for months.

Two parents of two underage students spoke to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle and asked that their names not be used.

These parents and an attorney connected to the case said an investigation by the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation revealed the student had altered photos of female classmates to make them appear nude. He apparently threatened to send the doctored photos to colleges, teachers, student activity leaders and parents if the female students did not send him genuine photos that were sexually explicit. 

One of the parents said they became aware of the case in September after the suspect threatened their daughter, and that the DCI investigation began the same week. The other parent said they were notified by DCI their daughter was a victim in the case sometime in February.

"Several" of the victims have switched to online schooling because of the stress associated with having to face the alleged perpetrator, one parent said.

This parent said there had been "absolute inaction" thus far on the part of the school district and school administrators, other than no longer allowing the accused student to participate in large school gatherings.

"The key to this is the school district not having a policy," the parent said. "Girls continue to be victimized (at school)."

The parent referenced school activities that require participants to sign a code of conduct. A discipline matrix on the LCSD2 and Burns High websites lists potential consequences for things like harassment and "sexually-based behaviors," including referral to law enforcement and/or expulsion.

Another parent said their daughter had changed her own schedule to avoid being in class with the accused student. The parent said her daughter was told by Burns High's administration that the accused student was leaving classes early so the alleged victims wouldn't have to see him in the hallway.

That's not enough, the parent said.

"There's no possible way, without physically removing him from the building, that you can keep the girls and him out of each other's line of sight (consistently)," the parent said. "My daughter is at a point with the school that she feels like they're protecting him more than her.”

An LCSD2 student also brought up the issue at a March 14 meeting of the district's board of trustees. Speaking during the public comment period, the student asserted that "right now, we have a very big problem in our school system."

"I am moving to suggest a policy that would remove charged felons from the general student body," the student said, according to a recording of the meeting.

There were more than 30 victims at Burns "who are having to look a charged felon in the eyes within a general classroom," the student said, adding that the proposed policy would put the accused student "in isolation" in an effort to protect not only the alleged victims, but others who attend the Burns school, as well.

A trustee told her that although the board would not respond that evening, "we will certainly, at some point, address those kinds of things."

This student's family said that, as of Thursday, they had not received a response from the school board.

DCI Director Forrest Williams confirmed in an email to the WTE that the agency had investigated the case and that the student had been charged. The WTE could not confirm what charges had been filed against the student or the current status of the case, however.

Laramie County assistant district attorney Jeff O'Holleran, identified by parents and an LCSD2 attorney as the prosecutor in the case, declined to comment on any juvenile matter. That's because juvenile cases are kept confidential, except in some specific circumstances, according to Wyoming statute.

LCSD2 Superintendent Justin Pierantoni and Burns Junior-Senior High School Principal Bobby Dishman did not respond to the WTE's phone and email queries. LCSD2 board Chair Julianne Randall and Vice Chair Mike Olson did not respond to emails.

"The school district is aware of concerns that some students and their families have raised," said Scott Kolpitcke, an attorney for LCSD2, in a phone interview with the WTE. "They have responded and addressed those within the scope of the law."

In response to another email invitation for comment Thursday, Kolpitcke wrote, "Laramie County School District #2 is aware of concerns raised by some students and parents regarding the incidents you described. As with any complaint about student conduct, LCSD#2 takes appropriate steps, within the scope of the law, to investigate complaints, and to protect students. LCSD#2 cannot comment on specific details of actions it may have taken, or any investigations conducted, because state and federal laws protect the confidentiality and privacy of student information. The School District has policies in place to address student conduct, including, but not limited to policies which address alleged sexual harassment under Title IX. The School District has complied with its policies, and with the applicable laws, and will continue to do so in the best interests of its students.”

In a March 18 letter to Superintendent Pierantoni, an attorney for one of the juvenile victims, Bruce Moats, argued on behalf of the victim's mother that the district should "take remedial action to protect the safety of her daughter and the other female students as required by law."

Moats is a Cheyenne public access attorney who has represented many news outlets, including the WTE.

Such a request to Dishman, the school's principal, was "dismissed with what might be described as disdain," Moats wrote.

"The principal made several excuses, including that he did not know whether the electronic messages occurred on campus," the attorney continued, later adding that Dishman had "indicated he knew that the messages were not sent at school or on a school activity."

Moats wrote that "at the very least, the messages traveled onto campus, which is sufficient under law to grant the district jurisdiction to act.”

"It is clear that the district has an obligation to maintain a safe learning environment for all students. That includes an environment free of sexual harassment pursuant to Title IX," Moats wrote. "It is clear that this situation has affected the learning environment of the female students, as it has caused them to miss school because they do not feel safe."

Title IX is a federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal funding.

Citing case law, Moats argued in his letter that there are legal grounds to separate a student charged with a crime from his alleged victims at school and during activities.

"This is not a case where the school is faced with conduct that it cannot remedy," he wrote. "The school district has the ability to keep the parties separated and not require the female students to have to attend school with the alleged harasser. Your own Title IX policy requires you to take action."

Moats requested in the letter, on behalf of his client, that the matter be referred to the district's Title IX coordinator.

Both parents of alleged victims said they had either filed or were in the process of filing Title IX complaints related to the case. One of these complaints is currently being investigated, according to a parent.

Both said they also were in the process of filing complaints with the Office of Civil Rights, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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