Students worked for several months in different classes and subjects on a project centered on Claxton, CMS science teacher Brittany Lang said. The project provided hands-on, experiential learning about an event that changed Cortez, she said.
“We wanted to help students engineer a legacy,” Lang said.
On May 29, 1998, the 45-year-old Claxton was on duty south of Cortez when he noticed he was following a truck that had been reported stolen that day. When the truck stopped on the side of the road, Claxton pulled up behind it. A a man jumped out the truck and shot him 29 times with an automatic rifle through the driver’s side window of his patrol car.
After the perpetrators, Jason McVean, Robert Mason and Alan Pilon, fled to Southeast Utah, the manhunt lasted the summer of 1998 and involved dozens of law enforcement agencies.
A plaque honoring Claxton was placed in the eighth-grade lawn on the north side of Cortez Middle School shortly after he was killed. Some current students didn’t know much about who Claxton was, though, Lang said. None of the students had been born when the policeman died.
The CMS project culminated in a ceremony Tuesday in which students debuted a bench they built and a tree they planted near the plaque. Those items will honor Claxton and leave a piece of this year’s eighth-grade class for years to come, student Jayce Shields said.
“We thought about our legacy and what we would leave for this school,” he said.
About 100 students, teachers and community members gathered Tuesday afternoon for the ceremony. Officers from the Cortez Police Department and deputies from the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office watched, along with some of Dale Claxton’s family members and friends.
Lang read a quote from author Bill Bryson about legacy and the importance of community, and a student performed a song.
People attending the ceremony were invited to write messages about their legacies on slips of paper, which were then buried in the dirt around the flowering redbud tree the students planted.
Eighth-grader Loris Stone said the project helped her learn that everyone has a legacy that spread on and on. She said Claxton’s death was important for Cortez.
“Officer Claxton was a great man who was loyal to Cortez,” Loris said. “If it weren’t for him, the police force wouldn’t be where it is today.”
Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane, who was head of the force in 1998, agreed. On the day Claxton was killed, the department wasn’t ready for such an intense and serious situation, he said.
Since then, the police department has upgraded its training and equipment, he said.
He said he was glad that students chose to honor Claxton as part of their project.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” Lane said. “I’m really proud that they did this for Dale.”
Grant Armstrong, who was Dale Claxton’s best friend, said Claxton was like family to him. Claxton was a good and honest man who would do anything for you, Armstrong said.
“This means a lot to me – the school and kids’ understanding,” he said.
Sue Claxton, who was Dale’s wife, said Dale’s death changed Cortez and the project and ceremony will be meaningful for students for years to come.
“Now they can make a connection,” Sue Claxton said. “They’ll be reminded of their community when they see this.”