Last week, a 19-year-old man, later identified as Tu Ngo, posed as a student at both Grand County High School and Margaret L. Hopkin Middle School. After school he followed two students into their home; police arrested Ngo for trespassing, and have connected with local resources to assess his mental health. The school district issued a letter to parents and the community detailing the sequence of events and promising to improve protocols to prevent a similar situation from happening again.
According to the Oct. 15 letter from the school district, 19-year-old Ngo, who “could easily pass as 14,” entered the Grand County High School library on the morning of Oct. 12 before school began, and mingled with other students. He left through the front doors before classes started, and re-entered at 8:35, going into the office with two other students. The secretary asked if he was a student; he said yes, but one of his companions said he was not. Ngo was prompted to leave, and went to Margaret L. Hopkin Middle School, where he began using playground equipment outside. A staff member brought him to the middle school office, where Ngo said he was 14 years old and wanted to attend the middle school. He also said he was hungry; staff gave him food. Staff then called the high school, where they thought Ngo might be a student, and learned of events earlier that morning; they then called the police, who arrived and took Ngo into custody. A police affidavit of probable cause says he was checked into Moab Regional Hospital for a mental evaluation.
The following day, Ngo was near the high school and saw a Physical Education class using the outdoor track, and began running with them. The teacher told him to leave, which he did, but he returned later that afternoon and entered the school along with a group of students to attend the last class period of the day. In the classroom Ngo joined, the teacher mistook him for a new student. He left the school at the end of the day with the other students, and followed two sisters to their home, where he went inside, sat on the couch, and stayed for about 45 minutes, though the girls repeatedly asked him to leave. Ngo said he knew the girls’ mother, and that she had given him permission to live with them; he asked for food and water, which they gave him. He left when the girls told him their father was on his way home.
Officers detained Ngo on the morning of Oct. 14 and questioned him about the previous day’s events, including posing as a high school student and trespassing in the home of the two girls. The police affidavit says Ngo claimed he “did not know what they were talking about.” He was transported to the Grand County Jail.
When the school district learned of these events on the morning of Oct. 14, Superintendent Taryn Kay contacted law enforcement and asked for patrol presence at the schools. Law enforcement confirmed that Ngo was at that time in custody.
“Obviously GCSD administration is concerned that a student was able to attend a high school class posing as a GCHS student,” the Oct. 15 letter reads.
On the morning of Oct. 15, staff held a meeting to discuss what changes can be made to prevent a similar occurrence.
“The GCHS leadership team and accreditation committees are identifying all processes and procedures that were lacking, changing them where appropriate, and then training all staff to ensure knowledge and compliance. GCSD administration and staff will use this unfortunate situation to improve and be better, and ensure that nothing like this happens again,” the letter says.
Ngo is in custody at the Grand County jail, as of Oct. 18, on charges of interfering with arrest and disorderly conduct.
Acting Police Chief Braydon Palmer said he did not believe Ngo has ever been enrolled with the Grand County School District.
“This individual’s mental health has been at the forefront of our concern,” Palmer said of Ngo. “Every interaction that we’ve had with him… has involved us getting mental health resources involved,” including Moab Regional Hospital and Four Corners Behavioral Health.
Officer presence at schools
The Moab City Police Department made the difficult decision to remove the position of School Resource Officer last year. The department has faced staffing shortages for several years; currently there are five open positions for patrol officers at the department, according to Palmer.
The high school does offer a law enforcement class, taught by Moab Police Officer Monty Risenhoover. Risenhoover was on the school campus to teach on Oct. 8 when he was called to respond to an incident in which a teacher was injured when the oxygen regulator on an acetylene tank in a classroom “blew up,” according to the police report. However, there has been no full-time school resource officer dedicated to the school district this year. Palmer said that while the department must focus on hiring staff to respond to regular calls, reinstating a school resource officer is still on his priority list. He said funding for such positions varies in school districts around the state: in some places, it’s funded by the school district, in others by a city, in still others by the county. Palmer said the school district has been exploring options for grant funding to support a school resource officer.
“I personally want to get back into a position where we have that resource available to our schools,” Palmer said.
The police department does usually collaborate with the school district on emergency protocols and safety meetings. Palmer noted that in light of COVID-19 concerns, there have been fewer in-person meetings and drills between the police department and the schools. He looks forward to when COVID-19 is less of a risk, and those in-person drills can resume.
“I think there is room for improvement when it comes to preparing for these types of events,” Palmer said, referring to last week’s incident.