BELEN—Two Belen High School students have been charged after an incident with a BB gun on campus which put the school into an hours-long lock down last week.
A 16-year old boy and his 15-year-old girlfriend are both charged with unlawful carrying of a deadly weapon and interference with the educational process. The girl was released into the custody of her parents, and the boy was transported to Las Cruces and booked into the juvenile detention center there last Friday.
Belen Consolidated Schools Superintendent Lawrence Sanchez said both students have been suspended pending long-term hearings.
“We will see what the outcome of the hearings are to determine their future for the rest of the school year. When we take students to long-term hearings, it’s not done lightly. We understand the impact it can have on a students future,” Sanchez said. “We have to weigh that against the safety of everyone on campus. In this case, regardless of the type of weapon, it’s against the law to have it on a school campus.”
At about 1 p.m., Friday, Aug. 4, BHS security contacted the campus school resource officer to report a threat of a weapon on school grounds. Belen Police Chief James Harris said a student disclosed that the boy asked him to hold the gun for him during class. When he was brought to the principal’s office, he didn’t have the weapon on him.
“During the investigation, it was discovered that Christopher asked several people to hold this gun. This was found out by contacting every student in the class with him,” Harris said.
The boy was finally able to get his girlfriend to take the gun — a C11 4.5 millimeter BB gun — which was discovered in her backpack.
The lock down was lifted shortly before 5 p.m., which was extensive, the chief said, but not uncalled for.
“In a situation like this, whether we like it or not, we cannot allow the school to come off lock down until we have exhausted all efforts to locate the firearm or until we find the firearm,” Harris said. “If we feel there’s a credible threat, I’m going to lock it down until I have exhausted all investigative leads. If that takes an hour, if that takes 10 hours, I’m not going to jeopardize the safety and security of our schools and our students.”
During the lock down, residents expressed frustration on social media at there not being frequent updates on the situation. Harris said while the police department isn’t responsible for putting out information and updates about the situation — that falls to the Belen Consolidated Schools — it is responsible for vetting the information the district shares.
“When we’re dealing with a rapidly-evolving situation, we can’t always get that information out there,” the chief said. “I know that nowadays with social media … everybody is used to having immediate access to information. Unfortunately, in law enforcement situations that can’t always be the case. We don’t want to give information that’s incomplete, and wrong information is worse than no information at all.”
Harris said he was very satisfied with the overall outcome of the incident.
“The fact we had a school resource officer on campus who was able to immediately take command of the situation, immediately begin an investigation, immediately deal with the situation and we were able to then call in additional resources, I’m very satisfied with,” he said. “I’m very satisfied with the cooperation we received from the district, the school itself, the support we received from the community, students and staff.
“What I’m not satisfied with is it happened in the first place.”
The chief said the department, in coordination with the school district, has applied for a grant for school security measures, which will include portable metal detectors, hand-held metal detectors and breaching tools for each site.
“We’re all working diligently to make our schools as safe as we possibly can. Obviously, there is no foolproof way of making a school safe, but we are doing everything we can to increase our security,” Harris said.
The chief praised the students who told BHS principal Sonia Lawson about the weapon, saying it took “gumption” to speak up.
“See something, say something. That needs to be encouraged,” he said. “It’s good to see we still have kids out there who care about their safety and the safety of others. The majority of people, kids or adults, just want to go through life without worrying about whether they are going to get shot or stabbed or killed, or their family or loved ones being harmed.”
Sanchez said the situation last week was scary for all involved, but anytime they are able to get all students home safely is a positive outcome.
“I’m not pleased that a student brought a weapon onto campus and I’m not pleased another student decided to hold it,” Sanchez said. “I am pleased with the response of the Belen Police Department. Under the leadership of Chief Harris, there has been a desire to work together.”
Sanchez said there has been an increase of training exercises with the district, Belen police and fire departments, the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office and the city of Rio Communities.
“They have been at all our monthly safety planning meetings; we recently had an active shooter training. We’ve gotten to know each other and know what everybody’s roles are. When we have that interaction and then it becomes real, it makes things much smoother.”
Sanchez called the students willingness to speak up encouraging.
“One of the things we fight is the reluctance of students to be called a ‘rat,’” he said. “I talked to one student and asked if they saw someone cleaning out their neighbor’s house, what would they do? ‘Tell someone or call the cops.’ This is the same thing; they know the answer but peer pressure can deter them. Knowing that we had a large number of students who went to Ms. Lawson is encouraging.”
Sanchez said the district’s ability to take its SRO program from one officer to three, with BPD Officer Pedro Chavez at the BHS campus, resulted in an immediate response and quick support from the department.
“I am very thankful for all parts of the city of Belen’s government for making this a priority,” he said.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.