An attorney from Bangs McCullen Law Firm sent a letter on behalf of the Rapid City Area School District that demands a member of the public cease and desist from making “any future defamatory comments” at school board meetings.
The letter states that at an Aug. 24 meeting Florence Thompson accused the RCAS administration of brainwashing students and adopting programs that encourage students to “riot, attack government buildings, destroy property and destroy society.”
“It’s happened in Minnesota, where our superintendent (Lori Simon) is from, and we have adopted all of those programs that they have up there,” Thompson said.
Thompson, a retired school psychologist and president of South Dakota Parents Involved in Education, makes frequent critical comments at board meetings.
Thompson has questioned district programs that teach about equity and privilege, opposes LGBTQ+ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement at board meetings, and has frequently criticized board decisions on mask mandates and the pandemic response.
Attorney Kelsey Parker cited both of Thompson's comments from the August meeting in the letter dated Aug. 27 while writing that “this is not the first time that you have directly or indirectly attacked an employee of the District or the programs offered” by RCAS.
Simon refused to comment Tuesday on the letter after an interview request went through district spokeswoman Katy Urban’s office.
Parker said she discussed the issue with both Simon and the RCAS Board of Education. Both parties elected to send the letter, Parker said, noting she’s not aware of any other letters that have been sent to Thompson or other members of the public who have spoken during the public comment portion of school board meetings.
The district works with Parker’s firm for employment issues, while another Rapid City law firm, Gunderson Palmer, handles student issues. Parker said she was present at the Aug. 24 board meeting.
Thompson said at the school board meeting Monday night that the letter had a “chilling effect” on free speech.
Board president Curt Pochardt told the Journal on Monday that “as far as a chilling effect, that’s overstating it” and that he doesn’t see a problem with the letter that reminds Thompson to “maintain a civil tone and discourse in our meetings.”
Parker said anyone’s First Amendment right to free speech is limited in certain situations, such as talking about personnel matters or making defamatory statements at a school board meeting.
“We aren’t free to defame other people or violate board policy,” she said. “While public comment is a time to provide information for board consideration, it’s inappropriate to make offensive or derogatory comments about people in the district.”
Board policy BEDH — which prevents discussion of personnel matters or complaints that directly or indirectly identify an employee — has been an issue in the past, Pochardt said, noting he’s unsure if legal counsel ever had to send a letter before.
Pochardt said board members were aware that Simon was “upset” about Thompson’s comments and had concerns. If the issue comes to legal action, the board would be involved from there, he said.
Both Urban and Pochardt said they couldn’t release a copy of the letter, which the Journal obtained through other routes.
The Department of Public Safety will release its investigation into the attorney general fatally hitting a pedestrian with his car on Saturday night.
“We are adding an extra level of transparency and accountability that I think is necessary in this case,” Gov. Kristi Noem said at a Tuesday news conference.
“It’s something we take very seriously," DPS Secretary Craig Price said about avoiding any appearance of conflict of interest related to the top law enforcement official in the state.
Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg crashed at 10:30 p.m. on U.S. Highway 14, one mile west of Highmore, DPS said in a news release.
Ravnsborg said in a statement Monday night that he thought he hit a deer but realized he killed a man when he searched the site the next morning while on his way to return the car he borrowed form the local sheriff.
The victim was later identified as Joe Boever, a 55-year-old from Highmore. Boever's relatives say he was walking back to the car he crashed in the ditch earlier in the day.
Highway Patrol, which is part of DPS, is leading the investigation, Price said at the news conference.
He said the Highway Patrol often asks the Division of Criminal Investigation to help investigate fatal crashes but that wouldn’t be appropriate in this case since DCI is under Ravnsborg’s office.
“Since they work for the attorney general, we thought that it was in the best interest to ask an independent out-of-state investigative agency” to help, he said.
The North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation has been filling in for DCI’s role, Price said. Its agents are leading the interviews of Ravnsborg and other witnesses with the help of Highway Patrol troopers.
DPS is using a third-party crash reconstruction expert from Wyoming, Price said. The expert is John Daly from Jackson Hole Scientific Investigations, DPS Spokesman Tony Mangan said.
Price said Noem directed him to release the investigation, including all relevant 911 calls, once it’s complete. He said he doesn't have an estimate for when the investigation will be finished.
We’re “all hands on deck” and want a “complete and thorough investigation for everybody involved,” he said.
Price said Boever’s autopsy was conducted Monday in Ramsey County, Minnesota, since no South Dakota medical examiner was available. The findings are still being processed.
Price said his office has been in touch with the Hyde County State’s Attorney Office, which will decide whether criminal charges should be filed. He said he expects State's Attorney Merlin Voorhees to recuse himself if he has any conflict of interest with Ravnsborg. Voorhees did not respond to messages from the Journal.
Neither Voorhees nor the Hyde County sheriff are listed as endorsing Ravnsborg’s 2018 election, according to his campaign website.
Noem did not say if she would like Ravnsborg to take a paid leave of absence during the investigation.
“That has not been an issue that’s been addressed yet,” she said.
Noem wouldn’t comment on Ravnsborg’s Monday evening statement and walked away before a reporter finished asking if she has spoken with him since the fatal crash.
Ravnsborg attended the Pennington County Lincoln Day Dinner in Rapid City last Friday and returned home to Pierre around 1:15 a.m. Saturday morning, according to his Facebook post.
He arrived at the Spink County Lincoln Day Dinner in Redfield around 4:45 p.m. on Saturday, Ravnsborg wrote in his statement. The event was held at Rooster’s Bar and Grill, according to the website of the South Dakota Republican Party.
Ravnsborg said he left the event around 9:15 p.m and DPS said he crashed near Highmore around 10:30 p.m. It takes one hour and seven minutes to drive from the restaurant to the crash site, according to Google Maps. Photos by the Argus Leader show the crash occurred on a straight and flat stretch of highway near street lamps and a few businesses.
Ravnsborg said he didn’t drink any alcohol at the event.
“As the first persons there, and the last attendees to leave in the evening, we can personally attest to the fact that (we) did not observe the attorney general consume any alcohol,” the chairman and vice chairwomen of the Spink County Republican Party wrote on the group's Facebook page. We “offer our prayers and sympathies to the Boever family.”
The event was small and attendees sat at tables in the restaurant, according to photos posted by the group.
Ravnsborg said he hit what he thought was a large animal, likely a deer, after passing through Highmore. He said he immediately called 911 and was met by Hyde County Sheriff Mike Volek, who helped him search the area.
Ravnsborg said his car was likely totaled and that Volek let him drive his personal car to Pierre.
KELOLAND obtained photos of a car that appears to be the wrecked vehicle. It's a red Ford Taurus — the make and model DPS said Ravnsborg was driving — and the windshield glass is broken on the passenger side. The vehicle appears to match a car that Ravnsborg posted about on Facebook and Boever's cousin told the Journal that his friend saw red car parts at the crash scene.
Ravnsborg said he drove back to Highmore the next morning to return the sheriff's car and stopped by the crash site to see if he could find what he hit. Instead, Ravnsborg and his chief of staff/spokesperson Tim Bormann found Boever's body. They then drove to Volek’s house to notify him.
Bormann said Tuesday that he followed Ravnsborg — who he’s known for 25 years — to Highmore and gave him a ride back to Pierre outside of work hours and in his personal vehicle.
“I went to help my friend,” he said.
Bormann said they found Boever in a ditch, but he didn’t share any other details about where he was found since the investigation is ongoing. Ravnsborg wrote in his statement that Boever was “in the grass just off the roadway.”
It was quicker to drive to Volek’s house — who lives less than 1/3 mile from the crash scene — to report the body than to call 911 and wait for someone to arrive, Bormann said.
He said everything about Ravnsborg’s report aligns with his experience and that he’s been interviewed by the BCI.
Volek did not respond to messages from the Journal.
School supplies, like everything else about this pandemic school year, look a bit different.
Masks are required for every student in the Rapid City Area School district. To ensure that happens, RCAS has reached out to Masks for Rapid City.
Western Dakota Tech, in collaboration with the West River Area Health Education Center, formed Masks for Rapid City in April to lead mask-making and distribution efforts.
The nonprofit project has a goal to produce 60,000 masks for the community, including 14,000 for RCAS students. Masks for Rapid City is looking for volunteers who can sew masks and assemble mask kits.
“The schools asked for 14,000 masks, and we have produced about 2,000 of those masks,” Masks for Rapid City coordinator Stephanie Mayfield said. “Our biggest need right now would be for volunteers to cut ties for ear loops and make kits for elementary school masks.”
Masks for Rapid City coordinates purchasing and pre-washing the fabric, assembling mask-making kits, getting masks laundered, sorting masks, inspecting them for quality, and distributing them, she said.
“It’s quite a process. We know the need is still really extreme right now,” she said.
Grant funds totaling more than $90,000 from the Vucurevich Foundation, United Way of the Black Hills, Monument Health Foundation and the Black Hills Area Community Foundation are being used for mask supplies, Mayfield said. Betty’s Quiltery, The Sewing Center and Quilt Connection have provided cloth and thread at a discount. Mayfield estimates each mask costs about $1.50 in materials.
Laundry World and Heritage Cleaners wash the new material and then rewashes masks before they’re distributed to the public.
Masks for Rapid City supplies volunteers with kits that contain a spool of thread, enough fabric for 36 masks to fit elementary school students, and a pattern approved by Monument Health. The Monument Health Print Shop and RCAS Print Shop donated the paper and printing cost for instructions and patterns in each mask-making kit.
Since Masks for Rapid City launched, Mayfield said more than 17,000 masks have been made by the community, and all have been distributed. Masks for Rapid City has provided 450 masks for middle school and high school students, 256 for preschool students and 810 for elementary school students.
RCAS also purchased disposable masks and ordered 15,000 cloth masks from Shirt Shack, said Katy Urban, community relations manager for RCAS. The district has about 13,600 students.
“For this first week of school we have asked parents if they have masks,” Urban said. “We have said we will provide two masks and after that, it’s up to the parents to provide masks. We have had a lot of sewing groups and senior citizens groups that have called. We’ve been taking all kinds of donations in the community so that’s really going to help. For those kids who can’t provide masks themselves, we will have those extras on hand.”
Urban said the district would continue accepting donations of masks. To donate or for information, contact Urban at 394-4091.
Students are adapting well to wearing masks at school, Urban said.
“Things are going great. We haven’t had any issues with kids wearing masks. Even at the elementary level, they’re doing a really great job,” she said. “We really appreciate all the people that are stepping up because they saw a need.”
Mayfield said Masks for Rapid City also is assisting Pennington County Jail.
“A separate project is to produce 1,500 orange masks for the jail. So far we’ve only received 150 of those masks back so we’re still trying to get folks to pick up kits and sew masks for us,” she said.
Nancy Stephenson of Rapid City is a volunteer mask-maker who retired from WDT this spring after a 30-year career. Stephenson has produced 1,240 masks and has eight more in progress. She chuckles while describing her plan to quit when she’d made 1,000 masks. Instead, at that milestone Stephenson timed herself and discovered she could produce a mask start to finish in 20 minutes.
Stephenson said mask-making is a project suitable for even beginning sewers, with a bit of guidance. Stephenson’s granddaughter, a college freshman in California, has been dyeing and tie-dyeing fabric and sewing masks for her friends in their school colors, Stephenson said.
“I’m sewing like a maniac,” Stephenson said. “I really enjoy it because I love to sew, and it’s one thing I can do to help the cause, so to speak. I can make masks and I can mass produce them and help people that way. I really believe everybody should be wearing a mask when they go out. If it helps other people or it helps you, it’s worth it.”
To volunteer, call the Masks for Rapid City hotline, 605-718-3088, and leave a message. For more information and updates, join the Masks for Rapid City Facebook group.
The attorney general said in a statement Monday night that he and the local sheriff searched a crash scene after he thought he hit a deer Saturday night but they both missed spotting the pedestrian he had hit and killed.
Jason Ravnsborg said he used Hyde County Sheriff Mike Volek’s personal vehicle to drive home to Pierre and then returned it to Highmore the next day.
As he passed by the crash scene Sunday morning, Ravnsborg said he stopped to look for the deer but instead found the body of Joe Boever, a 55-year-old man from Highmore.
Instead of calling 911 Ravnsborg drove to Volek’s house “to report the discovery,” leaving Boever on the side of the highway where he had been since 10:30 p.m. the night before.
Ravnsborg shared this information and other details in a statement written on the letterhead of the Office of Attorney General and sent from his campaign email address.
Ravnsborg sent the email at 10:07 p.m. Central Time without the knowledge of his office’s chief of staff/spokesman.
“I have not seen what you are talking about,” Tim Bormann said Monday evening. “I have not prepared a press release.”
Bormann — who answered questions earlier Monday about the incident — said Monday night that he’s no longer issuing any statements about it and that Ravnsborg is working with a new spokesman on this issue.
Mike Deaver, who lives in Salt Lake City, said he’s a “friend of Jason’s" and also did not know about Ravnsborg's statement.
Deaver said he works for the Strategies 360, a Seattle-based communications firm. He said he has discussed the incident with Ravnsborg, but they have not yet talked about payment for his services.
Ravnsborg said he wrote the statement to address the “many rumors and stories being told and reported which do not represent a full and factual account of what happened.”
The attorney general said he arrived at the Spink County Lincoln Day Dinner in Redfield around 4:45 p.m. Saturday and left around 9:15 p.m. The event was held at Rooster’s Bar and Grill, according to the website of the South Dakota Republican Party.
“I consumed no alcoholic beverages before, during or after the event,” Ravnsborg wrote.
He said he called 911 after he hit something that he “believed to be a large animal (likely a deer)” shortly after passing through Highmore. The crash occurred around 10:30 p.m. on U.S. Highway 14 just west of the town, according to the Highway Patrol.
“I looked around the vehicle in the dark and saw nothing to indicate what I had hit,” Ravnsborg wrote.
Ravnsborg said he only saw pieces of his vehicle lying around the road and he used the flashlight on his cell phone to look in the ditch.
He said Volek arrived, inspected his car and the area, filled out accident paperwork, and gave him a tag required to get his vehicle repaired.
“At no time did either of us suspect that I had been involved in an accident with a person,” Ravnsborg said.
Ravnsborg said his vehicle was too damaged to drive home so he called the nearest tow service, which is in Pierre.
Volek “graciously offered to loan me his personal vehicle so I could drive back to Pierre” after saying it would take more than an hour for the tow truck to arrive, Ravnsborg wrote.
Ravnsborg was driving his personal vehicle, Deaver said.
The attorney general said he called Bormann to tell him about the crash and that he was driving Volek’s car back home. Ravnsborg said he arrived in Pierre around midnight.
Ravnsborg said he drove Volek’s car back Sunday morning and Bormann went with him. He said he noticed debris was still present at the crash site so he and Bormann stopped to see if they could find what he hit.
“I discovered the body of Mr. Boever in the grass just off the roadway,” Ravnsborg wrote.
The attorney general said he and Bormann checked on Boever and it was obvious he was dead.
“I immediately drove to Sheriff Volek’s home to report the discovery and he accompanied me back to the scene,” Ravnsborg wrote.
He said Volek said he would “handle the investigation” and told him to return to Pierre.
Ravnsborg said he’s cooperated with the investigation by providing a blood sample, letting officials search his two cell phones, and sharing the names of people at the dinner who could confirm that he didn’t drink alcohol. He said he was also interviewed about the incident.
The South Dakota Highway Patrol is leading the investigation and receiving assistance from the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation. BCI was called in to take over the role of the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation — which is under Ravnsborg's office — to avoid any conflict of interest, Bormann said.
“I am deeply saddened by the tragic nature of these events and my heartfelt condolences go out to the Boever family,” Ravnsborg said.
The attorney general said he would not be answering any questions from the media until the investigation is complete.