When Salida High School Principal Talmage Trujillo encountered a student in crisis earlier this year, he followed his playbook.
Trujillo went off looking for the kid for a one-on-one conversation.
But Salida police were looking for the teenager too, fearful he had a gun and unsure of his intentions and whereabouts after he threatened to kill himself.
The chaos that followed Sept. 23 spurred lockouts and lockdowns in the school district in the mountain town, and ended with Trujillo facing criminal charges. Police say he ignored their phone calls, misdirected officers and improperly instructed his staff to lift a police lockdown, worsening a confusing and potentially dangerous situation — although the school district later challenged what it called “discrepancies” in police accounts.
Now, Salida Public Schools has suspended its school resource officer program, and the city of Salida has hired a third-party investigator to figure out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again.
How Salida Public Schools and local police end up resolving the breakdown in communication and protocol could end up informing statewide and even national school policy on handling students in crisis, said school safety researchers who reviewed police reports in the incident at the request of The Colorado Sun.
The clash raises questions over who has authority during school emergencies — educators or the police — and plays into a national debate over whether police should have a reduced role in schools, particularly when it comes to dealing with students in crisis.
Police accounts of the incident show how miscommunications and arguments between officers and school officials piled up after someone reported a teenager expressing suicidal thoughts, prompting escalating responses.
Police allege Trujillo, who was with the teen throughout the incident, hindered law enforcement’s response by not communicating where the teen was or whether he was armed. Further, by issuing orders to school staff to lift a lockdown imposed by officers, police say Trujillo violated their authority under the law.
Trujillo faces four misdemeanors in the incident: harboring a minor, obstructing an officer and official misconduct, each punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, and obstructing government operations, punishable by up to six months in jail and a $750 fine. His next court appearance is scheduled for Nov. 30.
Salida police Chief Russell Johnson did not respond to an interview request from The Colorado Sun.
The police reports represent only one side of the story, however.
Trujillo, who was placed on leave by district officials after his arrest, was reinstated following a seven-hour executive session of the Salida Board of Education on Oct. 5. In a statement, the board said it found “discrepancies” between the police reports and statements from school staff.
Salida Public Schools Superintendent David Blackburn declined to discuss the incident with The Sun pending the outcome of Trujillo’s court case.
Trujillo did not respond to a request for comment.
Police, school officials clash
According to the police reports, the incident began shortly before noon after a teenage student at Horizons Exploratory Academy — the district’s alternative high school — visited the Salida High School nurse’s office for a COVID test. The student had not attended school in several weeks.
When the test came back positive, the teen told the nurse he “might as well put a bullet in his head” as he left her office, according to a report by Salida police Officer CJ Meseke, one of two school resource officers assigned to Salida schools. The report was first obtained by Heart of the Rockies Radio.
The nurse later told officers she also had told Trujillo about the teen’s alarming statement, and Trujillo encountered him outside the school shortly thereafter.
Meseke’s report says the teenager’s grandmother called police in roughly the same timeframe, saying her grandson had come home and told her he was suicidal after the COVID test before leaving home again headed in the direction of the high school.
The police dispatcher told Meseke that the grandmother reported the teen said he had a gun “and would prove it to her if she needed,” according to the report.
Meseke said he responded to the call alongside four other Salida police officers, a Chaffee County sheriff’s deputy and a Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife ranger. Meseke instructed officials at Salida High School, Salida Middle School and Horizons Academy to place the schools on “lockout,” meaning no one was to be allowed to enter the buildings.
As the seven officers converged on Salida High School, Meseke wrote in his report that officers feared the teen had made it inside the high school, and decided to place the school on lockdown, meaning all students were instructed to shelter in place.
Shortly after, Meseke spoke to Trujillo on the phone, but Trujillo wouldn’t share his location or allow officers to speak to the teen, Meseke wrote. That prompted officers to develop a theory that Trujillo may have been held against his will by the teen, according to a separate report by Lt. Spencer Blades.
“I found it highly irregular that the principal would abandon his duty and obligation to coordinate the safety of high school staff and students for the sole purpose of accompanying a juvenile in need of mental health resources while simultaneously not providing information to emergency responder (sic) at their request,” Blades wrote in his report.
Officers then contacted Salida Public Schools Superintendent David Blackburn, who told officers he wanted to hear “both sides of the story,” Meseke wrote.
Trujillo then texted dean of students Cory Scheffel that he and the teen were at a nearby McDonald’s, Meseke wrote, and several officers headed toward the restaurant.
While the officers were en route, Blades wrote, Scheffel texted Trujillo asking when school officials should lift the lockdown.
“End now,” Trujillo texted Scheffel, according to Blades’ report. “Everything’s okay. I’m working. Going in the right direction. No access to firearms. Please text me.”
Meanwhile, officers arrived at McDonald’s and found Trujillo and the teen weren’t there, Meseke wrote.
When officers returned to the school, they found the lockdown had been lifted, Meseke wrote. Blades, informed of Trujillo’s text message to Scheffel, said it only heightened his concerns.
“I felt this could be a possible tactic for someone to use if they were in possession of the telephone and were attempting to lift school security for the purposes of doing harm,” Blades wrote.
Meseke wrote that officers insisted to school administrators that the lockdown be reinstated, and said Scheffel instructed him to pull the school’s fire alarm to initiate a lockdown.
Officers wrote they soon spotted a person wearing a hooded sweatshirt trying to enter the cafeteria, only to discover it was Blackburn, the school district superintendent.
Blackburn was confrontational with officers, wrote Meseke, who said the superintendent told officers to “get the f— out of my school” and insisted he was the “incident commander” in the situation. Officers pushed back, saying emergency protocols placed police above school administration in such a situation.
The Colorado School Safety Guide, a non-binding set of school security recommendations published by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, places police, fire and emergency medical personnel above school superintendents as commanders of “large school district incidents.” In incidents that do not involve police, the guide lists school principals as incident commanders.
Salida Public Schools’ emergency operations plan, obtained by The Sun through an open records request, includes a diagram to list incident command succession of authority, though the diagram is blank.
After Blackburn spoke with Trujillo by phone, he told officers that Trujillo would take the teen to Crest Academy, the district’s alternative middle school. The superintendent would only allow one officer to accompany him to meet the teen, despite objections from officers who said the teen should not be taken to a school building.
Meseke’s report also alleges Blackburn expressed anti-police sentiments to a group of firefighters who responded to the fire alarm, a charge Blackburn later denied in an interview with the Mountain Mail newspaper in Salida.
Meseke met the teen at Crest Academy, where the teen apologized “and said he did not mean to cause a big scene,” the officer wrote. The teen was not criminally charged.
The teen was put into contact with clinicians at Solvista Health, a Salida mental health care provider. Police reports say Trujillo later arranged for the teen to spend the night in a motel room with the assistance of staff at Salida-based Full Circle Restorative Justice, which a report written by detective Mark Willburn called a violation of the teen’s safety plan as outlined by Solvista.
Representatives of Full Circle Restorative Justice and Solvista did not respond to requests for comment.
Charges are filed
Trujillo was charged with the misdemeanor counts four days after the incident, according to Meseke’s report and court records.
“Talmage was no longer acting as Salida High School principal,” during the incident, Meseke wrote. “Rather than following the lawful orders I provided Talmage, he failed to release (the teen) to any law enforcement officer, failed to disclose the location of (the teen who) he advised he was with and obstructed law enforcement from taking (the teen) into protective custody so we could provide him mental health assistance. … Talmage was given opportunities and orders to show cooperation and he refused to do so.”
Trujillo’s decision to focus his attention on a youth in crisis wasn’t surprising to Sydney Berggren, a 17-year-old senior at Horizons Exploratory Academy, the alternative school where Trujillo was principal for several years before moving to the high school this year.
“Talmage focuses on student mental health before thinking of what the consequences are,” Berggren told The Sun. “Students at Horizons may come from violent or difficult backgrounds. When they’re having a breakdown, his first reaction is to take them off campus, in a car or on a walk, to talk things out and understand what’s happening. He calls it a ‘circle-back.’ It’s refreshing.”
Berggren was at the high school for a morning class the day of the incident, and called the experience extremely distressing.
“We read and see so much about school shootings,” she said. “Everything was so hush-hush. None of us knew what was going on.”
When the first lockdown was lifted, leaving the lockout in place, Berggren said she went to the office to ask for a police escort, only to arrive as Meseke confronted Scheffel for lifting the lockdown in the first place.
“(Meseke) started yelling, saying ‘this is a serious situation, why the hell did you take the school off lockdown?’” Berggren said. “That’s when I started bawling. I had what I’d call my first panic attack. By then I was sure there was someone with a gun coming after us.”
Berggren said Scheffel did instruct Meseke to pull the fire alarm to reactivate the lockdown process. Blackburn told The Sun that was in keeping with a policy enacted after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, where a fire alarm perhaps activated by the shooter added to the bedlam, and other shootings where shooters allegedly used fire alarms to draw students from classrooms.
“When you hear a fire alarm, you’re supposed to go to a classroom, and if it’s a real fire, they’ll announce it over the intercom,” Berggren said. “The school has been kind of trying to normalize it, but it’s terrifying sitting in a room with a fire alarm going off for 10 minutes.”
Salida police Chief Russell Johnson told The Sun the protocol was developed based on guidance from the I Love U Guys Foundation, a school security advisory group founded after the deadly 2006 Platte Canyon High School shooting near Bailey.
“With the way schools are constructed these days, it is very unlikely that a school will burn to the ground,” Johnson wrote in an email to The Sun. “They also have very elaborate sprinkler systems. Because of that, students and staff are now advised to lockdown if they hear the fire alarm going off. If they see flames or smell smoke, they are advised to exit the building immediately. If they do not, they are advised to stay in lockdown until Law Enforcement gives the all clear. When we made these changes, local Fire Departments were involved in the discussions.”
Salida Fire Department Chief Doug Bess declined to comment on the protocol.
Berggren said she appreciated Trujillo intervening with the student.
“If Talmage hadn’t been on scene, that student would have been met by seven really intimidating and ramped-up cops,” she said. “He was having a meltdown. It was the last thing he needed.”
Still, she said after reading Meseke’s police report, she says Trujillo could’ve handled the situation better.
“He really should have communicated more,” she said. “I understand that if you’re a student in crisis and the adult you’re with can’t stay off their phone, it delegitimizes the genuineness of their response, but the key missing piece was communication (with officers).”
Salida Public Schools severs ties with police
In the days following the incident, Salida Public Schools suspended its school resource officer program, Blackburn told The Sun in an email.
“We are currently taking a pause until we can collaborate on how to better sync the two organizations,” Blackburn wrote.
“In addition,” Blackburn wrote in a follow-up email, “it is clear that we need to update/revise and re-establish our (emergency operations plan). That will be done in the Winter as we get more of the court case behind us, which should open up lines of communication.”
On Oct. 11, the City of Salida announced it would hire Denver-based Investigative Law Group, to investigate the incident and assess “internal responses, including communication procedures, incident command structure and standard response practices.” The city predicted the assessment would take from three to five weeks. It had not been published as of Thursday.
“Anytime that something doesn’t go exactly the way that you might like, we need to look at ourselves first,” Salida Mayor P.T. Wood said at the Oct. 5 city council meeting. “It starts with me and the council — did we provide the right resources, are we providing the right training, are we giving the right direction?”
The incident in Salida Public Schools suggests a district and a police department that have failed to adequately coordinate and test their ability to work together, said Guy Grace, the chair of the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools and the former security director for Littleton Public Schools.
Grace reviewed Meseke’s report at The Sun’s request.
“A kid saying they’re going to commit suicide with a gun, that’s not at all an uncommon situation,” Grace said. “But it sounds to me like this situation got confused from the get-go. Was this a heavy-handed response? It’s difficult to say, considering the officers seemingly had garbled information about what this young man’s intentions were. But unless this district and the police can work things out, if something big does end up happening, it’s going to be a disaster.”
Grace said charging Trujillo with crimes, however, was over-the-top and could inflame the damaged relationship between the district and police.
“Going forward with the charges would be a huge mistake,” Grace said. “That’s never going to contribute to an atmosphere of trust and respect. There was unprofessional behavior from everyone. The principal, the superintendent, the officers — all of those need to be trusted members of the community, and they need to work together.”
Grace said law enforcement must be part of school security culture, but it takes a delicate approach to ensure they don’t become an overbearing presence.
“If a (law enforcement) partnership is too heavy-handed, all you’ll do is discourage the learning environment,” Grace said. “When it’s running well, you’re enhancing the learning environment. How Salida works this out could have lessons for a lot of districts trying to strike that balance.”
A broader question about police and schools
The Salida incident is an example of why some school districts are reevaluating their relationship with police in schools, said Kathryn Wiley, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado whose work focuses on school discipline and law enforcement.
Wiley is among the experts who reviewed police reports from the Salida incident at the request of The Sun.
“It’s important to remember that contrary to public perception, schools are generally safe for students and teachers,” Wiley said. “The majority of incidents police respond to in schools are nonviolent. Students are typically safer in schools than outside them.”
Wiley said high-profile school shootings have contributed to a desire for a greater law enforcement presence in schools, but said drug abuse, mental illness and suicide are far greater threats to students.
“Many of the issues police are responding to in schools, like drugs and alcohol, can be responded to with student support programs,” Wiley said. “They don’t need to be criminalized.”
Wiley said research does not support the idea that more officers in schools translates to a reduction in crime or shootings.
“If people want police in schools because they’re concerned about school violence, well, we’ve had the tools to reduce school violence for 20 years, but we haven’t had a commensurate investment in them,” she said. “Those are things like investing in robust counseling and mental health treatment, and an overall focus on social and emotional awareness.”
Mark Edson, president of the Colorado Association of School Resource Officers, estimated around 300 SROs are currently working in 179 public school districts in Colorado, though SROs also serve in private schools.
After reviewing the police reports, Wiley said she wished that calls such as the incident in Salida be responded to not just by law enforcement, but by a mental health first responder.
“When you have a student in crisis like that, they need that situation handled in a way that’s dignifying,” she said.
Berggren, the senior at Horizons, said she fears the Sept. 23 incident could make other students reluctant to reach out for help when they’re in crisis.
“There aren’t many people you can reach out to,” she said. “I’ve tried to get into Solvista for therapy for weeks. I was met with so much paperwork. It took weeks to get an appointment. You really have to go looking for mental health care around here. If you don’t have someone to talk to, you can get stuck in your head. Kids trust Talmage wholeheartedly. I’m lucky I have time and patience when it comes to my mental health. But mental illness doesn’t always have time and patience.”