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Alleged child sexual assault in a Cody elementary school raises questions about providing safe environments

Vehicles drive on a downtown road in Cody, Wyoming
faungg's photos

The alleged incident 

The parents of a Cody kindergartner felt really excited to send their daughter to Livingston Elementary School this year. Originally, she was placed in a school that wasn’t ranked very well.

“Livingston is the number two school in the state on that same ranking list,” said the mom of the child. (We are not using the name of the parents to protect their child’s identity.)

The mom said, in fact, if they didn’t get into the school, they were thinking of homeschooling.

“So getting into Livingston was a big accomplishment for us,” she said. “This is the best school. We made it. You got the brass ring. You're in the top school in the area.”

But after school started at the end of August, she said things went awry almost immediately.

“There was a definite change in her behavior as far as emotionality, getting upset over little things, being meaner with the pets, having more interest in pulling your pants off and going to the bathroom multiple times a day, instead of just every once in a while,” the mom recalled.

She said, finally, at the end of October, she started asking questions. That was when her child told her she was sexually assaulted by six older elementary school girls in a school bathroom.

“They had used fingers and they had used sticks and they had held her down on the floor of the bathroom. They had kicked her. They had punched her. Just a brutal attack from other classmates,” she said.

The parents immediately called the police, who initiated an investigation. Park County School District Six Superintendent Vernon Orndorff sent an internal email to the entire district on Nov. 21 that acknowledged the allegations of sexual assault in a school restroom and stated that they are currently doing a Title IX investigation following the district's policy.

Park County School District 6 response

In that internal email to the district, Orndoff said, in addition to the Title IX investigation, an internal investigation is in progress, and the Cody Police Department has assigned a detective to the case. But the parents say they haven’t been contacted by the police since their initial report.

The email goes further to say the safety and well-being of students remains their top priority so they are putting an established support system in place, including access to the school’s counseling office and the ability for all parents to reach out to Orndorff himself with any questions or concerns.

The parents say right after they found out about the incident, the school counselor declined to provide counseling for their daughter and referred them to Yellowstone Behavioral Health instead. They also say they have sent four emails to Orndorff and have not received a response.

“We feel like we’re being victim shamed and disbelieved and that the severity of her attack, the brutalness of it, is being diminished,” said the mom.

The crux of the alleged incident comes down to why a five year old was left unsupervised in a bathroom for long enough for something like this to happen.

Superintendent Orndorff said kindergartners have a bathroom in their classrooms but during recess or lunch, “the teacher is there monitoring the outside area outside the restrooms; they let one student in and the other student comes out. So they're really closely monitoring that movement within the restrooms,” he said.

Orndorff admitted the system isn’t perfect. Due to this year’s alleged incident, he said they’ve updated their restroom protocols so third to fifth graders must sign in and out to use the bathroom, something they didn’t have to do before.

“So, [teachers] monitor what time that student leaves, who it is and what time that student comes back,” said Orndorff.

Plus, he said all teachers in the district have always been required to take an annual training.

The training covers subjects like, “Title Nine, mandatory reporting, bullying, sexual harassment, abuse. So it's those trainings,” Orndorff said. “It just reinforces those areas that we need to be aware of. And again, if we see any signs or concerns in children, then we act appropriately.”

Kamila Kudelska
Wyoming Public Media

Those mandatory trainings required by Park School District Six are from Vector Solutions. It’s worth noting that, besides the mandatory Title IX training, if schools are receiving federal money there are no requirements from the Wyoming Department of Education. That means each school district in the state trains teachers about sexual assault awareness differently.

Child sexual abuse prevention education 

It might be hard to believe, but children are sometimes the perpetrators of sexual abuse. Nationally, 21 percent of children are abused by another child. Back in 2018, there was a nationwide effort to get educators trained on child sexual abuse prevention. Wyoming adopted it but unlike other states, it doesn’t require that type of education. Rather, it says schools may provide it if they like. Orndorff said he’s aware of the statute.

“Although we don't have a specific curriculum for that, we do set those expectations because we want to build a healthy culture and within that culture is how we treat each other and set those expectations,” Orndorff said.

Jody Sanborn, the prevention specialist with the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said creating a safe environment is a first step but the state statute allows for collaboration with experts in communities who have the knowledge and skill set to teach things like,

“‘Is it okay, if I use your pencil?’ That is getting consent, and that's teaching kids a skillset of asking permission for something,” said Sanborn. “But that then later translates into relationships and other situations in the future.”

Sanborn said we shouldn’t expect teachers to be experts on these topics, which is why bringing in outside knowledge is so important. She recognizes that it’s scary for teachers to talk about this stuff.

“I think that's one of the big reasons why people aren't doing it is because they don't know what that is supposed to look like or how to have those conversations with students,” Sanborn said.

Some districts in the state have taken advantage of the law and have started implementing prevention education in their schools, starting with elementary schools. Those include schools in Teton, Goshen and Sublette counties.

Sanborn is hopeful that this type of prevention education will be implemented more throughout the state. She was involved with the Wyoming Department of Education and other stakeholders to create THRIVE, a framework meant to support student mental and emotional wellbeing. THRIVE stands for think through decisions, respect for others, inspire action, value relationships and elevate oneself. She said it will address students' risk factors like feelings of isolation or not being able to maintain relationships.

Wyoming Department of Education

“If you can address those risk factors at their core, you're not just going to prevent domestic violence or sexual violence. You're also going to potentially prevent drug or alcohol abuse or suicide later down the line too,” said Sanborn.

The Wyoming Department of Education said three districts in the state are currently going through the THRIVE pilot program. Those include all schools in Lincoln County School District #1, Saratoga Elementary in Carbon County School District #2, and Davis Elementary in Laramie County School District #1.

The Cody Family 

As for the family in Cody, the daughter hasn’t been in school since the end of October. She’s been able to keep up with homework with her parents picking it up from the school for her. The district offered Homebound Education, which is when someone from the school comes and helps the student with their school work if they are unable to come to school. But the parents say the educator the school provided is a coach and isn’t available until after 6:30 p.m. on weekdays.

The mom said the school district and law enforcement have not been communicating well enough with them.

“It’s heartbreaking to think that the people put in place to protect us, the police, the superintendent, the teachers that teach our children, would not believe that this had happened. They’re there to protect us and we don’t feel that we’re being protected,” she said.

On Friday, Dec. 1, the parents received a call from Wyoming Congresswoman Harriet Hageman's office that informed them that she’s requested a Congressional inquiry into the handling of the case by both the Park 6 School District Superintendent's Office and the Cody Chief of Police.

In an email, the parents wrote, “We don't know where this will lead, or if it will change the outcome that the school and police are seeking, but we're glad to have another agency asking questions.”

In the meantime, they’re looking into moving out of the state where they hope their child will be safer.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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