Steamboat Springs After an allegedly race-related incident led to violence at a local school last year, the Steamboat Springs School District has installed a harassment policy aimed at better investigating complaints from students and staff.
Randall Nelson, now a 15-year-old freshman at Steamboat Springs High School, was found not guilty Thursday on assault and disorderly conduct charges stemming from a February 2007 incident that left another boy with a broken jaw.
During their years at Steamboat Springs Middle School, the other boy allegedly taunted and threatened Randall because of his race. Randall also spoke out against harassment in Steamboat schools when he was in fifth grade.
Administrators depicted last year's incident as a wake-up call about harassment in local schools, which prompted a revamp in policies for the Steamboat Springs School District - where 91.7 percent of students are white, according to enrollment figures for the 2007-08 school year.
"The harassment policy was brought on not just for Randall, but the changing demographics of Steamboat," Steamboat Springs Middle School Assistant Principal Jerry Buelter said last week. "We have a bit more diversity than we did in the past."
Local schools also are trying other proactive approaches to stopping harassment, such as creating culture clubs to allow students to experience diversity, Steamboat Springs High School Principal Mike Knezevich said.
"Many kids in our area haven't had that opportunity to interact with individuals of different beliefs or persuasions," Knezevich said. "Once they have those opportunities, we hope they understand that we are all people."
The Nelson family was "instrumental" in getting a stronger harassment policy put in place in Steamboat's school district, Buelter said. While harassment complaints had previously been minor and infrequent, Randall's situation was a "wake-up call," he said.
"We realized that, as a district, we were inadequate. We didn't have as up-to-date a policy as we should have," Buelter said.
Last spring, after school administrators and staff and school board members met with the Nelson family, they came together as a group to urge for a review of district polices. Steamboat looked to other districts to make its harassment policies "more in tune with the times," and developed interview protocols to better direct the investigation process, Buelter said.
The district's new harassment policy specifically prohibits "harassment based on race or color, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or religion," and requires administrators to "promptly and appropriately discipline any student, teacher, administrator or other school personnel who is found to have violated this policy, provide appropriate assistance to the victim and/or take other appropriate action reasonably calculated to end the harassment."
In Randall's case, the injured student was not punished by the middle school.
"He was out for two weeks in the hospital, and I wasn't going to take any more days out for him," Buelter said.
The boy no longer attends Steamboat schools.
Parents play a key role not only in the investigation and pursuit of complaints in the district, but also in notifying administrators if they are aware that their child is being harassed, administrators said.
"We take any harassment very seriously," Knezevich said. "Any time we are aware of any kind of harassment, either racial or sexual intimidation of any kind, we will conduct an investigation into the people who may be involved."
Incoming ninth-grade parents are instructed every year to contact administrators if they are aware of any harassment occurring in school, Knezevich said.
Parents may be brought in while the school is investigating complaints and interviewing those involved.
"Especially with middle school students, we ask parents to be involved in the interview process," Buelter said. "If they have a hard time articulating what happened, we'd ask a parent to come in."
Relying on parental involvement in investigating harassment complaints sometimes has frustrated enforcement efforts.
"Ultimately, it falls on the student or parent," Knezevich said. "That has honestly been a type of frustration. We'll do the investigation, but the student or parent will choose not to follow through and there is some disappointment.
"I understand there are worries of retaliation and those things, but if there is a crime committed and someone is harmed, there needs to be consequences," Knezevich continued. "Parents need to be willing to follow that."
When schools receive reports of harassment, racial or otherwise, law enforcement is typically only involved if the alleged victim and their parents want to pursue it, Knezevich said.
When Randall broke another student's jaw during last year's altercation, law enforcement was not immediately contacted.
The delay was partly caused by the fact that the boy blamed his injuries on falling into a bench, Buelter said. Law enforcement was notified after the boy received X-rays and after school officials spoke to his parents, he said.
Steamboat Springs Police Officer Josh Carrell, who has been on the job as the school resource officer at Steamboat Springs High School since last month, said he has not yet had to deal with any race-related problems.
During her nearly five years in the position, former school resource officer Deb Funston saw her share of race-related incidents. But in terms of actual crimes committed in those incidents, there was nothing more serious than vandalism, she said.
"The main types of things that would show up were racially motivated graffiti," she said.
In Steamboat Springs as a whole, race-related crimes mostly consist of assault and vandalism, Carrell said.
Police do see racially motivated tagging on vehicles and buildings, including racial slurs and offensive symbols such as swastikas, some of it targeted at individuals and some of it more general expressions not directed at anyone in particular, Carrell said.