Sheriff: Deputies face disciplinary action after school security incident

Monday, Aug. 27, 2018 6:53 PM
Dolores students return to school Monday morning. On Friday, Superintendent Phillip Kasper updated parents about an incident that occurred during a deputy and school resource officer’s security check that alarmed school staff.
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin on Friday said two deputies face disciplinary action after “inappropriate” behavior during a security check at elementary and secondary schools in Dolores.
Dolores school officials and sheriff officers (background) watch over students as they arrive on campus Monday morning.
Staff must use a electronic key pass to enter the Dolores Elementary School. All visitors to the school are assessed by camera and intercom before being buzzed in.

The Montezuma County sheriff on Friday night said that a deputy faces dismissal or reassignment after he reportedly entered a classroom in Dolores during a security check and, using his hand to simulate a gun, pointed a finger at the teacher and said, “You’re dead.”

Sheriff Steve Nowlin responded to The Journal’s telephone calls on Friday evening, about three hours after Phil Kasper, superintendent of Dolores School District Re-4A, emailed a letter to parents and staff to update them about the Aug. 17 incident.

Parents emailed copies of the letter to The Journal.

According to Kasper and Nowlin, a deputy was conducting a security walk-through with the school resource officer when the incidents occurred.

“The Deputy and SRO entered a classroom with an open door,” Kasper wrote in the letter. “The deputy in an effort to heighten security awareness used his finger to simulate the firing of a gun and said “Your (sic) Dead” to the teacher, in front of students. In another classroom, he told students ‘We need to shoot your teacher.’”

Nowlin identified the deputy as Donnie Brown and the school resource officer as deputy Kaylee Green. Both face disciplinary action, Nowlin said.

“I take full responsibility for their actions,” he said.

In other classrooms, Green and Brown “interrupted the teaching and learning to lecture teachers about locking their classroom doors,” Kasper’s letter said.

Kasper wrote that although school officials may relinquish aspects of command and authority to law enforcement officers during emergency situations, “lecturing school personnel and school administrators while they are carrying out their professional duties shows a complete lack of judgment and full disrespect of our educational role in the community.”

“The fact that this was done in full view of children only reinforces the egregious nature of this officer’s judgment,” Kasper wrote.

“The Deputy had a mouthful of tobacco while in the school setting,” Kasper wrote, referring to the schools’ tobacco-free status.

Kasper added that a student or adult who exhibited the same behavior likely would have faced expulsion, a no-trespass order or charges – options that he was holding “in abeyance for right now.”

“I have full confidence in the Sheriff’s abilities to take corrective action within his department and with his employees,” Kasper wrote.

Nowlin acknowledged that he and deputies have become frustrated with security at Dolores schools and admitted that “the message delivery was wrong.”

“This behavior was inappropriate,” Nowlin said Friday. “This won’t happen again and never should have happened.”

“If I need to meet with parents, I’ll do it,” Nowlin said.

Elementary Principal Gary Livick told The Journal on Friday that school policy mandates that all exterior school doors be locked, and they are checked daily. Interior classroom doors may be left open at a teacher’s discretion, but the door handle or knob must be in the locked position, he said.

“That way, when the door is pulled closed in an emergency, it is quickly locked,” he said. All teachers have keys to lock their classroom doors.

During the safety check Aug. 17 by the deputies, Livick said, all the elementary’s exterior doors were locked, but three classroom door handles were not in the locked position. Teachers, some of whom are new, have been reminded of the policy, and follow-up checks show they are complying, he said.

Brown and Green contend in Sheriff’s Office memos that during the first of two security checks, seven exterior doors were unlocked or propped open at the high school. Brown also stated in a memo that two exterior doors to the elementary were propped open with rocks, and “multiple” interior doors were unlocked. At the Teddy Bear Preschool, he said, three exterior doors were “unsecure or propped open.” Brown said that the second security check showed the main entrance at the preschool was propped open, and “several” interior doors at the elementary were “unsecure.”

Incident starts flurry of emailsThe incident quickly started a round of emails between school administrators and the Sheriff’s Office beginning Aug. 17.

Elementary Principal Livick emailed Nowlin on Aug. 17 to report that a teacher said that 10 minutes before the end of the school day, Brown and Green entered an unlocked door and said in front of the class, “We need to shoot your teacher.”Secondary School Principal Jenifer Hufman emailed Nowlin on Aug. 18 to report that a teacher said Brown pointed a “finger gun” at her and said, “You’re dead.”On Aug. 18, Brown apologized in an email to Nowlin “for any issues that I might have caused. … My only goal in doing the security checks was to assist with safety and security of our children and staff at the schools.”In a memo dated Aug. 20, Green stated that she and Brown “located 7 exterior doors unlocked or propped open with rocks, as well as several interior doors unlocked.” She reported that although she didn’t hear what Brown said in the high school class, after the visit to the elementary class, he said something like, “I guess I just shot the teacher.” Green added in her Sheriff’s Office memo that she apologized to principals and teachers.Kasper wrote in his letter to staff and parents that he and Nowlin discussed the incident early on Aug. 20 and again on Aug. 21. Nowlin met with Kasper, principals and staff, the superintendent said.Nowlin emailed an apology to Dolores school board members and school administrators on Friday afternoon. In that email, which he provided to The Journal, Nowlin apologized for Brown and Green’s “inappropriate” behavior and stated that he “was truly embarrassed.” He stated that the safety check and contact with students and teachers were conducted without his knowledge or approval.Brown has not faced disciplinary action prior to the classroom incidents, Nowlin said. As a member of the sheriff’s mounted patrol, he was involved in an investigation after his horse kicked and injured two children during the Escalante Days festival in Dolores on Aug. 11. One child reportedly was taken to a Denver-area hospital.

Two deputies from the Sheriff’s Office serve as school resource officers – one in Dolores and another in Pleasant View and Lewis-Arriola elementaries. Battle Rock Charter School also receives support from the Sheriff’s Office.

Two deputies – Brown and Tish Strawn – are on contract as law enforcement officers for the town of Dolores. Strawn currently is on leave, Nowlin said.

A time of heightened awarenessThe classroom incidents come in a year of heightened awareness in Montezuma and Dolores county schools after the shooting at Aztec High School in New Mexico on Dec. 7. The shooter, former student William Atchison, 21, killed two students before killing himself. He apparently entered the building in the morning along with students.

Schools in Montezuma County subsequently held vigils in honor of the Aztec students, and school boards in Cortez, Mancos and Dolores discussed safety policy. According to district safety coordinator Jamie Haukeness, Montezuma-Cortez schools are in a continual lockout state, meaning that exterior doors are locked and access is limited. The district also has added cameras and intercom systems at Lewis-Arriola and Pleasant View schools.

Mancos School District RE-6 also publicly discussed school security at length. The school board decided to hold off on arming staff with guns and plans to remedy many of its security issues during its $25 million renovation project. That project is underway.

After the Aztec shooting, local schools received heightened law enforcement presence in response to several security incidents.

In April, a suspect was arrested after an unsubstantiated threat was directed at Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1, which announced that the high school went into lockout status. The suspect who allegedly made the threat was apprehended in Cortez.In February, Montezuma County schools went into lockout status in response to two potential threats.Mancos School District Re-6 Superintendent Brian Hanson said an anonymous phone call led to a lockdown in Mancos, and a former substitute employee later pleaded guilty in the case.

Brock later confirmed that a separate rumor, reported anonymously through Safe2Tell alert system, led to a heightened law enforcement presence at Cortez schools.

Trent Stephens and Jim Mimiaga, of The Journal, contributed to this article.