Gunnison leaders express hope community can move on from explosive sex abuse case
By Robert Stevens
GUNNISON—People who had an official role in or were close observers of the explosive juvenile sex abuse case that was settled late February agreed on three things when interviewed last week.
They said the case had been exceptionally hard for the whole community and for them personally, they were relieved that the justice system had dealt with the problems, and they hoped everyone could move on.
One of the first steps toward healing divisions and making sure nothing like the recent case happens again may be a town meeting next Monday, March 18 at 8 p.m. at Gunnison Valley High School.
The meeting is sponsored by “Stand Up, Speak Out,” a program initiated by student body officers at the high school.
The recent case in which sexual and physical assaults of young people apparently went on for years without being reported to police reflects a cultural issue, says Melissa Judy, advisor to student body officers and a former Gunnison city councilwoman.
“The purpose of the program (the town hall) is to bring us back together again, not just the school, but the whole community,” she said. “We hope to create a cultural change, not only in the school, but in the community.”
The abuse case cut deeper community divisions than almost any controversy in Sanpete County in years.
Judge Brody Keisel of the 6th District Juvenile Court noted as much in admonitions to both sides at the beginning of the sentencing hearing for a 16-year-old defendant on Feb. 26.
“This is a smaller community,” he said. “It’s a wonderful community in so many different ways….But when matters happen sometimes in a small community, it gets to be very difficult. Neighbor becomes disagreeing with neighbor, friend with friend, sometimes even in families, there’s disagreements.
“Tone it down,” he told people who were in the courtroom to make personal statements prior to sentencing. “This goes to both sides.”
A law enforcement official who asked not to be named said the behavior of the 16-year-old, who ended up with serious charges, had been a “systemic problem for a number of years” and it took police intervention to stop the behavior.
The Gunnison Valley Police Department (GVPD), he said, originally recommended 25 criminal counts. The county attorney ended up charging 11 counts, and in a plea agreement, the youth admitted to eight counts.
“It’s been a tough case for Carl,” the official said, referring to Carl Wimmer, the school resource officer at Gunnison Valley High School and a member of the GVPD, who ended up as lead investigator in the case.
“Officers have had to stand up to a lot of criticism while maintaining a neutral position,” the official said. “All we are is fact finders. We don’t make decisions” on prosecutions.
Following sentencing, the GVPD posted a statement on its Facebook page commending youth and parents who came forward and reported assaults, and then made statements in court.
“The Gunnison Valley Police Department wants to publicly honor and recognize the courage of the many victims and families in the recent sexual abuse case,” the post read.
“For more than an hour at court this week, victim after courageous victim stood, faced their attacker and spoke truth…We could not be more proud of how the victim families have conducted themselves.”
Blake Donaldson, a city councilman, said he had been friends with the grandfather of the youth who was charged for decades. He agreed with the Messenger’s observation that the youth’s family had given tremendous service to the community.
But he said, “If all those things (described in court) happened, how can you take sides? It’s pretty cut and dried.”
Of the upcoming town hall, he said, “I think that’s the best thing. People need to support coming together.”
He said Gunnison City is beginning to look into a national program called “Communities That Care,” which is credited with cutting teen smoking, drug use and delinquency as much as a third in towns where it has been implemented.
“The basic thing is we need some time to heal,” said Kent Larsen, superintendent of the South Sanpete School District, who lives in Gunnison.
“The justice system will do its part. Its purpose is to heal (the youth) and take care of their problems.”
Two youth victims said in court that they knew of the behavior of the 16-year-old being reported to adults years before it was reported to police, but nothing had been done. The youths didn’t specify who the reports were made to.
Larsen said it would have been nearly impossible for a complaint that reached the school administration, or even a teacher, to not be investigated and for action to not be taken.
He said every complaint of a student behavioral problem is documented in writing, and administrators and teachers are trained to get back to the person who made the complaint and report the action taken.”
“We have checks and balances in place,” he said. “We hardly ever let (a complaint) rest with one person. It’s pretty hard to let something go with that many faces on it. To say nothing gets done is pretty hard to prove or even assume.”
Kim Pickett, who represents the Gunnison Valley on the South Sanpete School Board, said the schools board was “attacked from every side” during investigation and adjudication of the case. “Every group has attacked us for siding with the other group,” he said.
“Let’s move on,” he said. “I hope that people can work together in a positive sense.”
Judy said students at Gunnison Valley High School have already put the abuse controversy behind them.
Student officers and administrators have “made great strides” in implementing the Stand Up, Speak Out program the officers outlined at a packed school board meeting at the height of the controversy.
One element of the program is teachers delivering lessons on character and communication during advisory periods. Teachers give one lesson every other week.
Some of the topics are “What it means to be trustworthy,” “Resiliency” and “Celebrating you.”
Students have discussions with their advisory teachers and write in journals about the topics.
The goal is to help students “know their teachers on a personal level” so they feel comfortable talking to them about any problem they are having at school or at home, Judy said.