Former St. Anthony School Parents Want Answers About Abuse, Shaming
Sources for this story include Townsquare Media Casper General Manager Tom McCarthy and his wife Sara. K2 Radio News is part of the Townsquare group of stations. Cathy Holman, known as "Prairie Wife in Heels," an on-air host of Townsquare's MyCountry 95.5, and her husband Dan also are sources. None of them were involved in the reporting and writing of this story.
St. Anthony Board Chairman Scott Klosterman responded to K2 Radio News with a statement about the allegations on Thursday, which is published in full at the bottom of this piece.
"Our son was labeled a liar,"
In May 2014, St. Anthony Tri-Parish Catholic School was hosting its annual Mother’s Day Tea.
Meanwhile, three boys were in the kitchen.
One boy held up a blanket while another boy put his penis in the mouth of a third boy, according to a Nov. 19, 2019, letter to Bishop Steven Biegler of the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne from the parents of the boy who was assaulted.
The parents repeatedly asked Novotny for the other parents to be notified, according to email exchanges.
Two weeks went by before Novotny notified the parents of the other boys.
According to the parents, St. Anthony's School administrators and staff did not report the incident to the Wyoming Department of Family Services.
Only later did the boy's counselor notify the Department of Family Services, they wrote. (A DFS spokesman said such child-on-child activity should be reported to local law enforcement.)
According to the family, the boy wasn't the only one who suffered, because others with the school shamed the parents; the father himself being a St. Anthony graduate.
"Our son was labeled a liar," they wrote. "We were labeled troublemakers and made to feel very uncomfortable."
These parents withdrew their children from the school.
According to letters and documents sent to Biegler, at least two other families said children exposed themselves to their children. When the parents brought up these incidents, the teachers or others in the administration would tell them that what happened with other children was none of their business. One family was told to leave the school after raising the exposure issue.
These parents raised other issues and criticized the school’s responses.
When asked about these allegations, St. Anthony Principal Cyndy Novotny defended the school and its responses.
"I'm a little shocked," she said last week.
These and other incidents raised by the parents had been investigated and resolved, and the results had been forwarded to Biegler, she said.
Novotny acknowledged that some parents had visited with some board members, adding they were not happy with what they heard.
She also touted the school's procedures for safety and its educational record, adding its graduates later did well academically at the local high schools.
A former student disagreed.
“A number of my cohorts and I joke that we went into high school with a ‘sixth grade education,'" she said. They transferred to Kelly Walsh High School in the ninth grade and needed to take remedial classes.
She and others praised the school for its ideals when it says "St. Anthony Tri-Parish Catholic School is dedicated to achieving academic excellence in a faith filled community, living a life committed to Christian service."
The families said they had high respect for Catholic education.
They admired the 70,000 square-foot school that opened in 2010 at 1145 W. 20th St.
Some parents taught, volunteered or did fundraising, with some having been involved for more than a decade.
The school, which has had a long history in Casper, is open to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. It now has 215 students, according to its website.
It was founded in 1927 and built at 218 E. Seventh St., as a ministry of St. Anthony of Padua Church, 644 S. Center St.
In 2002, the name changed to St. Anthony Tri-Parish School, according to Wyoming Secretary of State records, to reflect the other participating St. Patrick’s and Our Lady of Fatima churches.
Yet despite its long history and public presence, some parents said they have never been able to find out who all board members are.
That apparent secrecy was among a number of problems, parents said.
For example, Cathy Holman said she was happy with the first few years her children attended St. Anthony, but grew concerned when her third child attended the pre-school.
Holman, who has a degree in early childhood education, volunteered to help the pre-school teacher and offered suggestions to Novotny, but was rebuffed.
Holman decided to homeschool her child and asked for a tuition refund. After the teacher learned of the request, the teacher no longer let Holman in the classroom.
The classroom ban was among the kinds of retaliation from those running the school against parents and teachers who raised questions and wanted accountability, she said.
More than one parent said, 'I can’t go public because I am afraid of what may happen to my child and my family.'"
To understand "retaliation," some parents said being Catholic means belonging to a community, and to send a child to a Catholic school shows a special commitment to the faith community. More than just seeing families at church, school involvement means frequent interactions and deepened friendships among families throughout the week. But when families raised questions, they would be cut off socially from those who were closer to the center of the school's life. They would become the targets of gossip and shunning by laypersons and clergy in the Catholic community.
Over the years, Holman learned she was not alone and that she had to take a stand, especially when she heard what others endured, she said. "Over and over I listened to parents break down and cry as they told me about their experiences. More than one parent said, 'I can’t go public because I am afraid of what may happen to my child and my family.’”
Through chance meetings and references, parents found others who had similar struggles about their children’s education and treatment, how they did not receive answers or support from the administration, and how they were often ostracized.
After years of wondering what to do, they formed an ad hoc "Concerned Parents Group" in the fall of 2019 and gathered letters and statements detailing their experiences. They often included lengthy email exchanges with school and church officials to verify their complaints.
On Nov. 4, 2019, the Concerned Parent Group sent the letters and statements with a cover letter to Biegler.
The cover letter identified these areas of concern, among others:
- Children had not received adequate instruction including Catholic teachings, and that teachers had not been held accountable.
- The administration and other officials either belittled concerns or ignored them through a culture of silence and shame.
Group members cited instances of neglect, educational deficiencies, retaliation and other issues:
- The school required parents and volunteers to sign a confidentiality agreement stating they would not talk with anyone else about any student who is not their child. Concerns should be brought to the teacher or the administration who then would determine whether to pass them to the other student's parent or guardian. Parents said that would stifle their ability to report inappropriate behavior.
- In September 2017, a pre-school teacher fed a boy a cookie containing peanuts, even though the school had documentation about his allergy. He was taken to the emergency room of the Wyoming Medical Center for treatment. The board of directors later let the teacher resign.
- St. Anthony would change policies, curriculum and standards without notifying parents and students.
- Parents were not able to obtain bylaws or financial records.
- Teachers who reported inappropriate behaviors were bullied by other faculty.
- Children of school officials who bullied other students were not disciplined.
- After a parent of a student was murdered, the administration did not bring in a counselor to work with staff or children.
- As part of her contract, former teacher Jackie Navarro participated for five years in a retirement fund in which the school would match her monthly contributions. Navarro retired in 2015 and wanted to know how much money was in the fund. She said she could not find any record of her contributions, even after talking with the school’s accountant.
At the end of the Nov. 4, 2019, letter, the Concerned Parent Group asked Biegler to arrange an independent investigation within three months of him receiving the letter. "Prayers have been cast that this investigation leads to a change in the SAS culture and updated policies and procedures to protect children."
One parent said, "they have to own up to their mistakes."
Navarro added, “I want the school to be open again, and people not be fearful.”
What they got was a runaround that persists.
The following chronology is documented by communications among the Concerned Parent Group, and representatives of the diocese and the school:
On Feb. 21, 2020, the diocese's Director of Pastoral Formation Joseph Wotawa wrote a letter containing the documents from the group to then-school board president the Rev. Thomas George. Wotawa also asked for an investigation.
On April 6, George responded, saying he forwarded the documents to the directors, adding the board unanimously rejected the request for an investigation.
The board reviewed the concerns and took corrective action where appropriate, he wrote. "Moreover, concerns involving matters that require reporting to governmental agencies was fulfilled unless expressly requested by the child's parents not to report such concern."
In a May 11 letter, Biegler wrote to George saying he was concerned about the school leadership's response. "As the school leadership reviewed the matters of student safety, supervision, and student confidentiality, the process was insufficient." (Italics in the original.)
Not everything warranted a third-party investigation, Biegler wrote. But those matters “that pertain to safety, security, confidentiality of students, as well as the school leadership’s response to these situations, would warrant an impartial review, as a reflection of good governance by the school board.”
Biegler wrote he was expressing his personal views while respecting the separate incorporation of the school.
Last week, a spokeswoman for the diocese said Biegler had nothing to add to what he already had written.
By July, the board had agreed to conduct a third-party investigation.
"Since the investigation has been completed, I would not have any information to update the Concerned Parent Group with."
In late August, the group wrote to Wotawa. It wanted to know who was conducting the investigation; when the investigation would end, adding the families had not yet been contacted; and a request for updates.
On Sept. 3, the group wrote to new board chairman Scott Klosterman. They reiterated that the families had not been contacted.
The next day, Klosterman responded that the investigators were two highly qualified former school administrators from Natrona County who had no affiliation with St. Anthony.
"Since the investigation has been completed, I would not have any information to update the Concerned Parent Group with."
Two weeks later, the group wrote to Klosterman, saying his response was unacceptable.
"Is it the stance of the SAS board that a thorough, non-biased, investigation took place without speaking to the 13 families who submitted documentation of abuse, neglect, and educational neglect?"
Two days later, Klosterman wrote back, saying the board did not direct or limit the investigators' work, nor will it identify them.
"Because the report of the third-party investigators contains a discussion relating to a human resource issue of a SAS employee, a copy of the report cannot be provided to you and the Concerned Parent Group. However, in summary, the third-party investigators found that the matters raised by the Concerned Parent Group were appropriately addressed by SAS. In addition, the third-party investigators did not find or make any recommendation to the Board that: (1) any corrective action be taken; (2) that SAS change existing policies/procedures; or (3) that SAS adopt new policies/procedures."
On Nov. 17, Biegler wrote to the Concerned Parent Group saying he met with the board, and he and the board agreed no further investigation was needed.
Individual family meetings with the board, however, would be appropriate, he wrote.
But some parents have said they didn't want to meet as individual families because they didn't want to feel overwhelmed by the other side.
On Jan. 6, the group wrote to Klosterman acknowledging the offer to meet, but wanted a group meeting with the entire board, the principal, a diocesan representative, and a mediator.
"Thank you for your careful consideration of our upcoming meeting. We look forward to hearing from you,” the group wrote.
That was Jan. 6.
They're still waiting.
This is a statement from St. Anthony Board Chairman Scott Klosterman sent to K2 Radio News on Thursday.
“In school, and in life, we encounter differences of opinion. A ‘Concerned Parent Group’ has voiced their opinion regarding certain concerns they have about activities, events, and instruction involving themselves and/or their children at St. Anthony Tri-Parish School. While the ‘Concerned Parent Group’ maintains that their concerns have not been fully heard and duly considered, the Board of Directors of St. Anthony Tri-Parish Catholic School respectfully disagrees. The Board has spent a significant amount of time reviewing and discussing the concerns raised by the ‘Concerned Parent Group.’ In addition, the Board retained two independent and highly qualified former school administrators to review the concerns raised by the ‘Concerned Parent Group.’ The ‘Concerned Parent Group’ was advised that the former school administrators did not recommend that any further action be taken or that any changes be made to the school’s policies and procedures with regards to such concerns.
“The Board respects and values differences of opinion and therefore in an effort to seek renewed understanding, forgiveness, and resolution, invited those who are part of the ‘Concerned Parent Group’ to individual meetings with the family’s pastor, two lay members of the Board, and a Diocesan leader. Although the Board’s invitation has not been accepted, it remains open to each and every family who would like to participate in such a meeting.”
“Scott P. Klosterman, Board President”