Inconsistencies in Chatfield High mystery smell story

It's always fascinating for members of the media to get a glimpse of reporting from inside a story -- and that's what I've experienced in recent days regarding the evacuation of Chatfield High School on Friday; an unidentified odor resulted in 25 students and staffers on site for freshman orientation being treated at area hospitals. The reason? My twin daughters, Lora and Ellie, sixteen, were sitting in the school's cafeteria, ground zero for the incident, when it happened. They each experienced coughing and a burning sensation in their eyes, but neither required emergency-medical care.

Good news for the mainstream press: Both girls wanted to see TV coverage of the event at 5 p.m. that day. However, they found reportage on channels 4, 7 and 9 wanting. Specifically, none of the packages we saw made mention of their group: They were among dozens of Chatfield juniors leading the freshman sessions, with supervision from teachers. No wonder why they pretty much ignored TV from that point on, turning instead to MySpace bulletins, where they could read the latest rumors about what really went down.

Then, on Sunday, we received two robo-calls from the school. The first simply stated that school would be open as scheduled on Monday; immediately after the evacuation, school officials had promised such notification would be forthcoming. Then, at just past 6 p.m., we got a recorded message from Chatfield principal Bernard Hohman, who revealed the substance that caused all the problems had been identified as pepper spray or mace. It was surprising, then, to open up the Denver Post this morning and find that the article on Chatfield's reopening made no mention of the Hohman call and offered much less definitive statements about the reason for the closure: "The cause hasn't been found, but there's an outside chance it was an old can of Mace that a student sprayed on campus sometime earlier, authorities said Sunday." (The authority in this instance was a spokesman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.)

At this point, Lora and Ellie are planning to ask around at school today in the hope of learning even more about what actually happened rather than waiting for follow-ups from local stations. And who can blame them?

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts