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Friday morning, Dec. 17, the City of Salida announced that it has completed an assessment of its current policies and procedures related to school lockouts/lockdowns following an incident at Salida High School that occurred on September 23, 2021.

Image courtesy of the City of Salida.

An independent third-party analysis of internal responses, including communication procedures, incident command structure, and standard response practices was performed at the request of the Mayor and City Council. The press release announcing the conclusion of the assessment was noticeably short on details, but the full assessment was attached.

“The City of Salida and the Salida Police Department are currently reviewing this report and our standard protocol responses to incidents at all Salida schools. We’re grateful that there are lessons that can be learned and new policies that can be implemented to provide our children with the safest learning experience,” said Salida Mayor Dan Shore. “We look forward to working with our partners at the Salida School District on implementation of best practices and following established protocols in the future.”

The city hired Investigative Law Group (“ILG”) of Denver, Colorado, to assess the city’s coordinated response. ILG has assisted in evaluating whether actions were taken within the standard response protocols established between the City of Salida and Salida Public Schools, including where and how actions may not have followed protocol.

Three response areas were reviewed: standard response protocol, communications procedures, and incident command structure. The report concluded that there were “opportunities for improvement” in both communications procedures and in how the incident command structure was implemented.

Photo by Brooke Gilmore.

With only an initial review of the 70-page assessment, the following points are of interest;

  • The ILG Attorney Representative Travis Carr noted that while the school had denied access to several items of information he requested due to “the specialized details of security arrangements”, he believed some of the same information was released to The Colorado Sun.
  • Although there have been attempts over the past few years, there is not yet a coordinated radio system between the school resource officer (SRO) and the school’s communications channel. According to Officer Meseke, the use of a radio to communicate with school officials has not been standard. (SRO Tucker, who was on maternity leave at the time of the incident, said: “the school’s system is not set up correctly.”). Subsequently, information being passed back and forth was not occurring on the same radio channels, then when asked, Dispatch cleared the wrong channels.
  • There appears to have been ruffled feathers between the Salida Police Department (SPD) and the school early in the 2021-22 school year when the school executed a drill without notifying the SPD. The SPD appears to have taken it personally and the high school appears to have done little to alleviate the tension.
  • As the event was unfolding, a school official unidentified in the ILG report (but identified in earlier news reports) as Julie Spezze, provided Dispatch with second-hand information that “she was told there was an event of a violent nature.”
  • The SPD was following their standard incident commander structure for a community safety event, which would put them in charge. But the school district, not aware until the student arrived at the school to meet with the school nurse, appears to have viewed the incident as a school event where they would be the incident commander.
  • The Dean of the High School Dean Scheffel after speaking with Principal Talmadge Trujillo confirmed the student had no access to firearms and released the lockdown, but didn’t tell the SPD, which put the school back into lockdown.
  • Following Sept. 23, Salida High School suspended the SRO program.
  • On September 27, 2021, Principal Trujillo was arrested for Harboring a Minor/Runaway (M2), Obstructing Governmental Operations (M3), Obstructing a Peace Officer/Police Animal/Fireman, and 1st Degree Official Misconduct (Misd).
  • The city’s release noted that the Salida Police Department has already implemented new policies on the use of body cameras for law enforcement officers, in order to provide improved transparency for the community.

ILG’s independent report provides suggestions on improvements in the city’s response to school incidents. Three areas were recapped, described by the city as:

  • Improved communication techniques — the need is apparent on both sides of the incident response; the SPD and the Salida High School. For instance, Officer Meseke did not hear the first communication from Lieutenant Blades directing him to call School Superintendent Blackburn, which resulted in a delay of information being relayed. The use of cell phones to reach staff and teachers throughout the school system may have contributed to delays in locking out the Horizons school location.
  • Better protocols around reverse-911 implementation – the SPD failed to activate reverse 911, failed to gather timely and specific details about the appearance of the subject, and it cleared the wrong communications channel. SPD did not record all communications on body cameras, making an accurate record of the incident as it unfolded not possible.
  • Updating standard responses to meet the demands of today’s emergency response expectations. Until this school year, relationships between the SPD and the school were cooperative. According to Carr, “The departure from their prior working relationship caused confusion about how to manage the incident on September 23rd and could have endangered students and staff.”

While the incident ended well with the student, the assessment determined there were “opportunities to more clearly define roles and responsibilities based on the events of September 23, 2021.”

The term “incident commander” is a response term, and the disagreement between the SPD and the school superintendent over who was in charge in this incident could well have caused a delay in ending the situation. Emotions appeared to run high.

The assessment noted the Colorado School Safety Guide, which references the National Incident Management System (NIMS) response to school incidents. Since the majority of school-based incidents do not require police or fire department assistance, a school official may serve as the incident commander and lead a command team of school personnel. But something like a bomb threat would definitely involve the fire and police departments and would require the school’s incident commander to transfer command to law enforcement.

During the response to this incident, Salida PD followed law enforcement policy establishing Lieutenant Blades as the incident commander. The assessment upheld this based on the IGL conclusion that the incident started out in the community when the student left his grandmother’s house. “Because the incident started as a community incident, not a school incident, it would follow that the Salida PD command structure would remain in place throughout the incident.”

Carr noted that he attempted to meet with school officials related to existing policies and practices as regards school incident command procedures, but the Salida School District did not respond positively, in what he referenced as a request “denied in bad faith.”

While the city’s assessment is done, the school district is just now taking steps for a third-party assessment. By a four to three vote earlier this week, the Salida School District Board of Directors approved proceeding with a gap analysis contract for an independent study of the school district’s emergency plan and operational protocols.

The school district has made no further comment at this time.

“The community’s safety is the city’s top priority and trust in the city organization is very important to the City Council and staff,” the city’s statement reiterated. “The Mayor and City Council continue to appreciate the hard work that our officers and staff put in each day for Salidans. ”

According to city materials, ILG’s specialty is responding to complex workplace issues as well as swift and impartial reviews. Its full 70-page report regarding the response to the Sept. 23 incident is available here.

City officials say they hope that this report will help answer some questions they have received from members of our community. Those with questions can contact City Hall at 719-539-4555.