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This week the rumors swirling around the Sept. 23 incident at Salida High School regarding a student having a mental health crisis, and the actions of the Salida Police Department as well as the actions of the school administration are not just incendiary; many of them appear to be outright misinformation.

Coupled with what some would say were law enforcement’s overreaction to the situation (sending no less than seven officers to the school to join the school resource officer as well as calling out the Salida Fire Department) is the school administration’s authority over its own facilities. While the police department asserted its authority over the incident and the school building, it could be said that the incident is a part of the ongoing national debate over law enforcement’s forceful response to mental health crises. Logical readers could see this situation as what it is: both a developing story — and a mess.

The police report blamed the school, apparently for not taking the report seriously, and claimed that Superintendent David Blackburn had disrespected them, although the report shows that the police attempted to deny him entry to his own school building. The school says that School Principal Talmadge Trujillo was working with the minor to de-escalate the situation, including time off the high school campus (a building legally under his administrative authority), and away from other students. Officer Meseke concluded in his report that by working with the youth off-campus, that Trujillo then had abandoned his role as principal and his students, a conclusion that would not appear to be in his authority to make.

But the Salida Police Department charged Trujillo with harboring a minor, obstructing a peace officer, obstructing government operations, and first-degree official misconduct, and issued an arrest warrant. On Sept. 29, Trujillo made an appearance in court, where he was released on a $500 personal recognizance bond.

September 23 Events

How all of this mushroomed into a major incident could become a case study in miscommunications, and law enforcement misunderstanding of modern-day school environments.

An outside informant, Rebecca Sue Viasman, called the Chaffee County Dispatch 9-11 service on Sept. 23 to alert them of a student that was threatening suicide and was a danger to himself. At 11:49 a.m., while the school was dealing with what they understood to be a student mental health crisis, Officer C.J. Meseke was notified of the student and arrived at the high school with at least six other members of the Salida Police Dept. and a U.S. Forest Service Ranger.

The report of the responding Officer Meseke said they had contacted the school’s administration (Dean Cory Scheffel), and upon arrival, proceeded to first order a school lockout and then a school lockdown. (A lockout is done to keep a threat out. A school lockdown, is when the school orders entrances locked so that students remain in the building for safety.)

The report has some incongruent time stamps. According to a statement by Detective Wilburn (contained in the report) prior to their arrival, Julie Spezze had called the dispatch’s non-emergency number, after failing to reach Office Meseke, to report that the Horizon Academy student was at the high school meeting with the school nurse. This was apparently before 11:00 a.m.. long before the safety emergency was reported. When the aggravated student left the school, the school nurse followed him, and met Trujillo at the door of the school, telling him the student was upset, so he turned and went after the student, who was then headed toward the football fields.

After law enforcement showed up, Dean Scheffel called Principal Talmadge Trujillo, who told him and Meseke that he was a few blocks away with the student off-campus; he was working through the situation with the student and would see them after lunch. Then he hung up. The police report says they called him back and he didn’t answer.

Meseke says he still didn’t know if the student had a gun (he did not) and thought the students at the high school were at risk. Not until then, at 12:15 p.m. did Meseke contact Superintendent Blackburn to tell him of the situation as he saw it.

Called about the incident, Salida School Superintendent David Blackburn (who is legally in charge of all Salida School facilities) arrived at the high school, just after the school had released the lockout. Blackburn arrived wearing a black hoodie sweatshirt and a COVID-19  facemask. The police officers who had taken over the building did not acknowledge Blackburn and refused him entry, and said they ordered another building lockout.

The 11-page police report, which Ark Valley Voice has read, repeats itself several times, especially claiming that Blackburn made “anti-police statements” during the incident. It documents a police force at the building, including the school resource officer, of more than seven law enforcement personnel, even after it was determined that the student wasn’t in the building. The report attempts a biased conclusion, saying “Blackburn chose to establish power he does not have and express his personal dislike for police.”

A reasonable person might look at this and ask whether Blackburn was expressing power — or simply responsibility for the school district he leads. A police officer saying that another dislikes the police is drawing a conclusion without proof.

To complicate matters, it appears that the police report on the incident was quickly released to another local media, Heart of the Rockies Radio. (since normally it can take days for the news media to receive requests for police reports, the mysteriously-swift release is odd.) The released report also illegally revealed the minor student’s personal information. Even redacted, one identification of the student remained.

As of Sept. 28, the District Attorney’s Office (DA) announced that it is pressing charges against Trujillo “for actions related to the lockdown that was ordered by Salida Police Department.”

This is a swift turn of events, especially given the backlog of cases that the DA’s office has referenced as it has proposed a 53 percent increase in its 2022 budget. The school district says that it has not yet been informed what those charges will be.

Also yesterday, the Salida School District released the following statement:

“Monday evening the school district was informed that the District Attorney would be pressing charges against Principal Trujillo for actions related to the school lockdown that was ordered by Salida Police Department on Thursday.  At this time, details of the charges have not been shared with the Salida School District. Principal Trujillo is on paid leave until further information is available.”

Photo by Brooke Gilmore.

Reached for comment by Ark Valley Voice, Salida School District Communication Assistant, Kim LeTourneau said:

“It is our understanding that Principal Trujillo was doing what many of our staff members would have done – put in the time to help a student in need. With the release of more information as Talmage goes through the legal process, the district will learn more about the charges against him and will move forward as more is known.”

“The most important thing to remember is that our students were safe. There was a concern for their safety, buildings were locked down until it was clear that the student in question didn’t have a weapon and in fact, needed support and understanding.”

“I’m a bit limited in what I can share in order to protect the privacy of the student involved. I realize that in a small community that is a daunting task, but we will continue to do our part to protect the student’s privacy – a courtesy we would extend to all of our students.”

The recounting of this incident clearly has many levels to it:

  • The definition of “student safety”: which includes not just the corporate welfare of the school district’s children, but the welfare of an individual student in crisis.
  • The need to determine appropriate force for a situation; it could be asked if this is a local example of the national debate over how to handle mental health issues, no matter the age of the affected person. The question: was the heavy-handedness of the police response in line with the situation, or was it an over-reaction?
  •  An apparent lack of pre-incident communications between law enforcement and the school administration regarding their respective roles related to safety situations.
  • And for the public — the willingness of people to allow rumors to control their attitudes about a situation, rather than wait for actual facts to emerge, sets up an environment of conflict that is counter to community.

AVV did contact Salida Police Chief Russ Johnson for comment, who has responded that the case is still under investigation so at this point he cannot comment. This is a developing story, so as more information is obtained, AVV will report on it.