By Braden Schiller
Powell Tribune Via Wyoming News Exchange 

Former Powell paraeducator found not guilty of abusing student

 

August 31, 2023



POWELL — A former paraeducator in Powell High School’s special education program — who had faced allegations that she abused an adult student and lied to the investigator in 2022 — has been found not guilty of all charges.

Jurors acquitted Brandy Wetherbee after an hour and a half of deliberations Thursday, following a four-day trial in Park County District Court.

“This is a case that destroyed two people’s lives,” said Brigita Krisjansons, one of Wetherbee’s defense attorneys. “One of the most important consistent people was ripped out of [the student]’s life and that is Brandy Wetherbee,” Krisjansons said, while Wetherbee’s occupation was taken from her.

Park County prosecutors had charged Wetherbee with a felony count of intentional abuse of a vulnerable adult and two misdemeanor counts of interference with a peace officer, but jurors ultimately found the state had failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

“We want to thank friends and family near and far for all their love and support,” Wetherbee said Friday. “I also want to thank the community for all the support I received.”

During closing arguments Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jack Hatfield argued that Wetherbee had not acted maliciously.

“Brandy Wetherbee is not the devil. There’s no horns growing out of her head,” Hatfield said. “There’s no reason to doubt she’s a trained professional.”

However, the prosecutor argued that Wetherbee wasn’t prepared for the events of Oct. 5, 2021. Wetherbee and fellow paraeducator Sue Swistak had been transporting two students with special needs from Cody to Powell High School.

The paraeducators stopped near Beacon Hill outside of Cody after one of the students, a 19- or 20-year-old woman who has mental and physical abilities comparable to a young child according to her mother, had a “meltdown.”

What happened next was in dispute.

Swistak testified that Wetherbee struck the young woman with an ice scraper multiple times. However, Wetherbee testified that never happened.

The events were not reported by Swistak until four months later, on Jan. 24, 2022.

Wetherbee was suspended for a period of time, but when Park County School District 1’s investigation proved inconclusive, she was reinstated at Powell Middle School.

Meanwhile, a separate investigation by the Park County Sheriff’s Office resulted in the criminal charges being filed on April 18, 2022.

The district then fired Wetherbee.

Because of their disabilities, neither the young woman nor the other student in the vehicle were capable of testifying about the events in question, leaving the jury to consider the competing versions of Swistak and Wetherbee. Which testimony was the truth was a primary focus of the trial.

Krisjansons argued that Swistak’s account was not credible, while Hatfield asked, “Why would she [Swistak] falsely accuse her friend of committing a felony if it wasn’t true?”

Wetherbee testifies

The trial — which was supposed to last no more than three days — concluded with Wetherbee’s testimony.

She spoke of the incident and her years-long relationship with the student, both as a para at the high school and as her respite care provider.

Prior to her termination, Wetherbee had been with the Powell district for five years, as part of 17 years of experience as a paraeducator. Wetherbee worked with students with a range of disabilities and “I loved doing it,” she said.

On the day of the incident, Wetherbee said the student had been taken to Northern, Inc. as part of her transition plan. However, she had to be picked up early for what Wetherbee considered to be “an emergency situation.”

When Wetherbee arrived at Northern, she said the student was sitting on top of a paralyzed resident who weighed less than 100 pounds. Wetherbee put the student in her designated seat and buckled her in.

As they drove toward Beacon Hill, the student “was screaming, kind of pulling at me,” Wetherbee testified. “I was trying to sing to her, have the radio, she was pretty much not having it, anything I was trying to deescalate her with.”

Wetherbee said the student was grabbing and throwing things, grabbing her and attempting to grab the other student. She was also kicking over the top of the second row seats.

When they reached Beacon Hill, Wetherbee asked Swistak to pull over so she could move items from the back seat to the front. The ice scraper was one of those items and Wetherbee said the student grabbed it. Wetherbee said she asked the student to stop because she was going to hurt somebody and moved the student’s fingers off the tool. She said she put the scraper in the front seat.

A co-worker’s account

Swistak — who was a paraeducator in the life skills room alongside Wetherbee — gave a different account.

As the trip progressed, Swistak said, the student cried and attempted to grab Wetherbee to get her attention. According to Swistak’s testimony, the student was grabbing items from the back of the vehicle and tossing them over the second seat, but she was not trying to hit anyone.

Swistak eventually pulled over to grab the items, while Wetherbee remained in the car. Swistak said the student was crying and Wetherbee was yelling, which made the student more upset.

“So finally Mrs. Wetherbee screamed at her to shut her f— ing mouth,” before reaching down to grab the ice scraper, Swistak said.

She testified that Wetherbee then struck the student five to seven times in the arm and breast area “pretty hard,” over the span of five to eight minutes.

Swistak said the student was reaching to grab Wetherbee “in defense of herself” and calling out Swistak’s name.

Swistak said she suggested they switch seats but Wetherbee told her, “No, you saw f—ing nothing.”

Swistak also said the student said “Ow, B” — a nickname for Wetherbee — while motioning toward her body in the pool locker room the next day. Swistak said there were four to six big bruises on the student's arm and left side of her breast.

The student’s parents testified that they saw unusual bruising around that time, with her father noting an “angry bruise” on her left thigh, but didn’t know the cause.

Swistak did not report what she saw because she was afraid, she told the court.

“I was intimidated,” she said.

Though she has worked in education for more than 30 years, “I’m in a new town, I’m in a new job,” Swistak said.

She told at least one other person about the incident, but didn’t tell PCSD1 administrators until Jan. 24, 2022 — after they heard about her allegations third-hand.

During cross examination, Krisjansons criticized Swistak’s unwillingness to report the alleged abuse, even though she is a mandatory reporter. Swistak said she had violated mandatory reporting policy.

School district’s next steps

Superintendent Jay Curtis received the report of the incident on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022 and directed Powell High Principal Tim Wormald to conduct an internal investigation.

Because he was out of town, Wormald began his internal investigation on Wednesday, Jan. 26.

Following the report, Wormald instructed the student’s teachers to keep a lookout for new bruises and maintain a bruise chart.

The student’s mother testified that she later asked the school to stop, because her daughter did not understand why they were “stripping her down” in the nurse’s office daily to check her for bruises. Wormald said that the bruise chart lasted only briefly, and to his recollection, the student’s parents were part of the decision. He was not aware of and did not authorize any strip searching of the student.

Wormald said the student would frequently go to the swimming pool, and bruises could have been seen in the locker room.

Then-Park County Sheriff’s Investigator Allen Cooper said the alleged crime was reported to him by the school district on Jan. 28, 2022.

His investigation concluded in April 2022 following interviews with Wetherbee, Swistak and others.

In a conversation with Wetherbee’s immediate supervisor, Cooper remarked that, “I don’t think we have a whole lot here” — a line that Krisjansons stressed during her opening and closing arguments.

Wetherbee testified to having a close relationship with the student in school and as her respite worker, but she hasn’t had contact with the student since January 2022.

This story was published on September 5, 2023.

 
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