Monday, February 12, 2001
Steamboat Springs Last week, 49-year-old Chris Neil planned an ice cream party for all the students at Soroco High School, where he works as a janitor.
"He was doing it because he really likes the kids," said Principal Richard Coleman, adding that Neil paid for the ice cream out of his relatively modest paycheck.
But when the ice cream arrived Monday afternoon, Neil was in the Routt County Jail, accused of pushing around four students after they reportedly clogged up a toilet with pencils.
Coleman said Neil has been an ideal employee who has worked for Soroco High School in Oak Creek for 15 years.
"He's been a real good employee, conscientious; best custodian I ever had in the school," the principal said. "I've never had an incident or even suspected he would be physically violent with someone."
Neil, at 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighing no more than 120 pounds, is smaller than many of the students he serves. He was arrested Friday and charged with four counts of third-degree assault and one count of harassment after students claimed they were pushed and shoved by Neil.
Coleman said he was surprised at the abrupt way Neil was taken away by Oak Creek police.
"They interviewed a few kids and just took him away. It was kind of disturbing, really," Coleman said. "I expected the police to investigate it more."
Oak Creek Police Chief Dan Kelliher could not be reached for comment Monday.
Like Coleman, some students at the high school were very upset by Neil's arrest.
"He's getting a bad rap that he doesn't deserve," said senior basketball player Katherine Ford. "He's done so much for us and is really a good guy."
Fellow student Sarah Broadbent agreed.
"He's a really hard worker," Broadbent said. "He's the best janitor."
Ford explained that along with Neil's usually thankless job, the custodian often does nice things for the students such as bringing ice cream to the boys and girls basketball teams and leaving suckers during practice.
While Ford didn't witness the alleged incident, she stood up for Neil.
"These kids have really been pushing his buttons," Ford said. "A few of us got rather perturbed when he was arrested."
In the meantime, Coleman and the middle school principal are doing an internal investigation and interviewing kids who witnessed the alleged incident between the students and Neil.
"(Neil) said there wasn't any argument and went in and told them to get out of the restroom and quit messing around in there," the principal said.
Coleman added that there have been problems with students plugging up toilets intentionally.
"He was upset about that, and apparently those students were in that restroom," Coleman said. "(Neil) has maintained he didn't do anything to any of them."
Parent Alicia Samuelson has substituted at Soroco schools for five years and said she was surprised to hear about Neil's predicament.
"He was really nice. Even the teachers say he gets his work done and gets along with the kids," Samuelson said.
Neil has been suspended with pay while the investigation continues. He bonded out of jail Monday afternoon.
When reached at the jail before leaving Monday, Neil said he didn't want to comment on the case.