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Montezuma County schools step up security after possible threats

Officers heighten presence; some kids go home; ‘person of interest’ ID’d

Montezuma County schools went into lockout Friday morning in response to two unsubstantiated threats against Montezuma-Cortez and Mancos high schools, according to school and law enforcement officials.

The Mancos Marshal’s Office reported on Friday at 4:22 p.m. that it has identified a “person of interest” who was related to the incident and there was no active threat to schools. Marshal Jason Spruell declined to comment further, saying the case was still under investigation.

Mancos School District Re-6 Superintendent Brian Hanson said an anonymous phone call on Friday morning led to Mancos’ lockout, and the district started lockout procedures just after 9 a.m.

Cortez Police Lt. Andy Brock later confirmed that a separate rumor, reported anonymously through Safe2Tell, led to a heightened law enforcement presence at Cortez and Dolores schools. Safe2Tell Colorado is an anonymous emergency alert system designed to help Colorado citizens report threats to their communities. The Dolores School District stated that it did not receive a threat.

Schools and law enforcement officials used the Nixle notification service throughout the day to tell residents about developments.

At 9:54 a.m., a Nixle alert stated that the Cortez and Dolores lockouts were due to an “unsubstantiated rumor, not an active threat.” At 11:07 a.m., another alert said the Mancos lockout was caused by an “anonymous phone call threat” and that all students and staff were safe.

In Mancos, classes continued as normal at the schools, but all doors and windows to the outside were locked and students were not allowed to travel between buildings, Hanson said. Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin said a Mancos marshal and a Montezuma County deputy were on scene to help with security and investigate the threat.

Hanson, who was out of town at the time, said parents would be notified of the situation immediately.

Normally Mancos Schools do not hold classes on Friday, but Hanson said Friday’s session was an exception because there were no classes Monday because of the President’s Day holiday. Mancos has a four-day week.

The Mancos School District announced on its website about 11:20 a.m. that school would be dismissed at 12:55 p.m. because numerous students had already checked out and the rumors had caused a distraction.

“Again, all students, staff and buildings remain safe and secure,” the announcement said.

Nowlin said schools in Cortez, Dolores and Mancos would have heightened security on Friday, but he said that was standard procedure in response to all reports of possible threats. He said he did not believe students were in any danger.

“It’s always that way anymore,” Nowlin said. “We just have to be extra vigilant.”

Some Montezuma-Cortez students go home

Tina King-Washington, the K-12 Education Director for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said Tribal Chairman Harold Cuthair asked her department to send two vans to the Montezuma-Cortez High School Friday morning “as a precaution” and to pick up students who wanted to go home and whose parents could get them released.

“These are our tribal kids, and we don’t want to take any chances,” she said.

Despite the increased security, Brock said police had no reason to believe the Cortez rumors were credible, and added that they may have stemmed from an older social media post reported on Sunday.

In a statement posted about 1:15 p.m. Friday to the Montezuma-Cortez School District’s Facebook page, Superintendent Lori Haukeness stated that everyone was safe and the Cortez Police Department and Sheriff’s Office had determined that there was no active threat to Cortez schools.

“Many of you have seen the social media posts in our community today suggesting possible threats to schools in Montezuma County,” Haukeness wrote in the statement. “The rumors spreading on social media increase anxiety among our students and families.”

Haukeness also recognized that parents have the right to make the choice they feel is best in regards to attendance.

This event came after a potential threat to Montezuma-Cortez schools over the weekend. A juvenile girl posted a photo of herself and what appeared to be an assault rifle to the social media platform Instagram, along with “derogatory comments.” Multiple students brought the post to their parents' attention, and they reported it to law enforcement.

The weapon turned out to be a BB gun, Nowlin said, and a deputy arrested the girl Sunday on an unrelated charge of failing to appear in court on an assault charge.

Chinle schools locked down on Friday

Also on Friday morning, Chinle School District in northeast Arizona went on lockdown after reporting a threat of a school shooting, according to the Navajo Times. The FBI determined the threat to be a hoax, according to a 9 a.m. email to teachers in the Chinle Unified School District, but schools remained closed for the day.The district’s website stated “CUSD#24 schools and district offices will be closed on Feb. 23, 2018,” but did not explain why.

Navajo Nation Chief of Police Phillip Francisco said Friday morning there had been a rash of such threats to reservation schools since the Feb. 14 shooting at a Florida high school that killed 17 people.

“Some of them are probably just rumors, but we are proceeding with caution and investigating all of them,” Francisco said to the Navajo Times.

Dolores went into lockout on Thursday

On Thursday afternoon, Dolores School District Re-4 went into lockout after the district was notified of law enforcement activity in the area by the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Department.The lockout went into effect at 1:20 p.m.

According to a news release by Dolores Superintendent Scott Cooper, the lockout was lifted after administrators were notified that a suspect was in custody.

The schools returned to their normal schedules.

Reporter Emily Rice of The Journal contributed to this article.

School alert timeline

Thursday night – Montezuma County law enforcement receives a rumored threat against Montezuma-Cortez High School through Safe2Tell.

9 a.m. Friday – Mancos High School receives an anonymous phone call with an unsubstantiated threat.

9:04 a.m. – Scanner traffic shows law enforcement officers going to Mancos, Dolores and Cortez schools to provide security. Schools go into lockout.

9:54 a.m. – A Nixle alert goes out to some Montezuma County residents saying the Cortez and Dolores lockouts were due to an “unsubstantiated rumor, not an active threat.”

10 a.m. – The Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office posts on Facebook that parents will see a “heightened police presence” today due to the rumor.

10:04 – The-Journal.com reports the Mancos lockout, using sources including school and law enforcement officials and stating that the lockouts were based on a rumor and hoax.

10:32 a.m. – The Ute Mountain Ute tribal education department announces it will send vans to pick up students from Montezuma-Cortez High School if they want to leave.

11:07 a.m. – A Nixle alert goes out to more residents saying that Dolores and Cortez schools are in lockout mode. “Everyone is safe and classes are going on as usual,” the alert says.

11:07 a.m. – A Nixle alert says the Mancos lockout was caused by an “anonymous phone call threat” and that all students and staff are safe.

11:20 a.m. – Mancos School District announces class will be dismissed at 12:55 p.m. The Dolores and Montezuma-Cortez school districts post the alerts from Nixle and the Sheriff’s Office on their website home pages.

1:15 p.m. – Montezuma-Cortez Superintendent Lori Haukeness posts a statement to the district’s Facebook page stating that everyone was safe.

2:17 p.m. – Montezuma-Cortez High School’s assistant to the principal, Debra Ramsey, shares the superintendent’s statement via a parent email list.

4:22 p.m. – The Mancos Marshal’s Office sends out an alert saying that a “person of interest” related to the incident has been identified, and that there was no active threat to the schools.

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