This is a brief history meant to button up the story. The purpose of this post is to offer a small summary of the sad ending of Orsch. It may offer too much detail to the general reader, but is a healing post for me and hopefully for those who lost their school to an unwarranted, unfortunate attack in a small town.
The first five years:
Orsch opened in September, 2009. It thrived in the basement of Webster Hall for two years, more than doubled in size, and needed more space. Orsch move to the upstairs of the Arts Center in 2011. It thrived there for another three years. The Art Center was in need of more space, and asked us to vacate after the 2013-2014 school year. At this time we had twelve amazing teachers, seventy-eight wonderful students and a thriving philosophy. After many failed attempts to find a suitable building for 80 plus students in or around Gunnison, we almost folded. We were homeless, and having survived on a shoestring budget for its entire life, Orsch was also penniless.
Year six to present:
A large group of parents and community members urged us forward. At a time when it seemed no options were left for us, a contingent of parents insisted on paying more tuition than was required, to keep Orsch alive and searching for a suitable home. My husband Ashley and I borrowed money from both of our parents to buy a building half the size we needed. We borrowed more money to build an addition which we finished in record-time, literally, the weekend before school started on September 4, 2014. Thank you Chris Klein and Klein Construction! The building was beautiful and we finally had somewhere to call home.
One of the reasons we chose to purchase this property was due to the outdoor access which included a large open green space owned by the City and designated as a park. Also adjacent to our building was the Department of Health and Human Services. The trouble started at the City Council Change of Use Meeting as we prepared to build the addition. A letter was submitted by Health and Human Services. The authors of the letter asked that Orsch students not be allowed in the public park adjacent to their building. They stated in the meeting that they did not wish to hear happy children playing outside their offices. At the meeting, City Council stood up for Orsch They would in fact not prevent kids from playing in a park owned by the City. A victory for Orsch. An upset for the authors of the letter. Orsch was welcomed by the city, and surrounding businesses. We were granted Change of Use for a school.
Orsch had enough space, but it was all asphalt parking lot. Although students would be in four-square heaven, our kids also needed grass on which to run, and trees to sit under. I had learned what an essential aspect this was when our school resided on the second floor of a concrete corner of town with not enough running-around-outdoor space. Thankfully, we could still walk next door to the City green space. But we knew from the very beginning we were not welcome to make happy noises too close to offices. As expected, happy noises happen. We were still too close to the Department of Health and Human Services. Much too close.
Most of the school year was a dream come true! We had classrooms and space to run and play. We were gifted our very own playset by a generous family, the Forsythes, who had mostly grown out of it. We painted it every color you can imagine.
But then the very last day of April 2015 happened. Kids are kids. And sometimes they get themselves into trouble. Generally the grown ups in charge are allowed to guide them and to make sure their lessons are learned, but that those lessons do not devastate their lives. This very minor childish incident started this way. Parents and teachers worked together for the best interests of the children…but then it took a turn.
Health and Human Services, with help from a misguided detective, decided to intervene. They decided to devastate rather than guide. Against the preference of all parents involved, they decided to launch an unfair and ridiculous attack on me, on another teacher, and on our entire student body, one student at a time. The basis of the assault on the teachers: Failure to Report Child Abuse. However, they had no child abuse, so they set about manufacturing it. Their attempt to manufacture it was the basis of the assault on our students.
They damaged children. They damaged families. They damaged friends of children. They destroyed a school, and they did their very best to put me in jail. One misdemeanor charge of “Failure to Report Child Abuse” was not enough. Three months after April 30th and two weeks after I made the painful decision to close Orsch, they would charge me with five additional misdemeanors, and a felony. It was personal. I don’t know why I was their target. I don’t know why they felt dragging families and an entire community into the mud was a good way to spend their resources. I remained steady in my innocence, as did our other teacher under attack and all of the families that were dragged through the mud. In addition, all of the families involved were devastated right along with me and my family and our school. In the weekly newspaper, letters of support were published simultaneously with articles about the case. I was instructed by our attorneys to say nothing, so I had no ability to defend myself publicly.
During that summer, the Orsch community stood strong. They attended meetings, pleaded with the powers that be, wrote letters, spoke their minds in phone calls and emails. The broader community stood behind me too. I read their letters in the paper with deep gratitude, and hope that they would make a difference. I received countless emails and cards in the mail–some people stating that they wished to support me privately. I will never be able to adequately thank all those who stood up for me and offered support. Thank you. I believe you actually did make a difference in the scheme of things. However, despite the overwhelming support for me, for our students, for our small school community, the prosecution was not swayed. They continued their mission.
During those painful months, I found myself depressed, scared, and hiding. My children did the grocery shopping. I did my best to not be seen. I cried non-stop. I researched and poured through case documents, my insides raw from churning and fear. I lost fourteen pounds. I was immersed in fear and in what ifs and in loss.
The summary I am about to offer makes it seem like it was a quick process, but it was not. This process took nine months. Nine months in which I had no faith in my justice system. No faith that I was protected by the law. No sense of security. No idea what my fate was. Scared to death. If I could be charged based on nonsense, why couldn’t I also be convicted based on nonsense? In a small town in which unwarranted certitude can run wild, with my life in the hands of three women who had nothing but hate for me, women who were not adequately overseen by their supervisors, I was not safe and I knew it. Trial was set for January 17th, 2016, and was estimated to take up to three weeks. There would have been no conceivable way to run a school in the midst of this case. Every moment of every day I was awash in fear that these children would be further damaged by Health and Human Services or the prosecution–their lives already turned upside down by this entire episode. The year of hell.
Finally, some key factors happened in the case. A brave father secretly recorded an interview HHS insisted upon with an Orsch student. This recording was a key factor in the immediate firing of the HHS Caseworker. Then, our expensive lawyers from Denver were able to outline the case for exactly what it was–nonsense– and demanded that the prosecution offer some semblance of reasonable cause via discovery, which they could not produce. The prosecution had spent eight months attempting to prove there was some sort of child abuse that should have been reported; they could not. And following their felony charge in August, they spent resources trying to prove I had tampered with a witness who I had not seen or spoken with since May. In their struggle to continue prosecuting nonsense and produce the requested discovery, the prosecution finally sought advice from their supervising office. The Seventh Judicial District DA dismissed the case the afternoon it landed on his desk, with a statement to my lawyers, “Why the f*&# did this take so long, and why the f*%& was she ever charged?” I will never forget those words.
On January 4, 2016 the case was dismissed with prejudice in a dismissal the likes of which apparently the courts had never seen. It was as close to an apology as it gets without opening themselves up to obvious liability. I will share an excerpt from the official dismissal because it says it all, “The matter is not tried by speculation, rumor and innuendo…After a thorough investigation and review by several prosecutors, the evidence in this case shows that, at best, the information of possible abuse or neglect was based on an unsubstantiated rumor.”
That’s the whole story.
We have built a new life in the city. I have been working in a completely different industry since we moved four months after the dismissal. I’m feeling brave and whole again. I miss Orsch painfully. I don’t miss the weight of it all, but I miss our students and our teachers and all of the beautiful moments that happened there every day.