By ALAN J. KEAYS
Brooke Olsen-Farrell says several months after a former student was arrested on charges of planning to shoot up a high school in Fair Haven, the after-effects continue to be felt.
“This threat has changed our culture,” Olsen-Farrell, superintendent of the Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union that includes the high school in Fair Haven, said last Tuesday at a statewide school safety conference in South Burlington.
“It has significantly impacted our ability to conduct normal business and our mission to educate students,” she said, adding that high stress levels have led some students and staff members to move to other schools.
“We have lost staff and students,” the superintendent said, “and spent an amount approaching $500,000 on school security.”
Olsen-Farrell spoke as a member of panel discussion titled “Lesson Learned from Fair Haven” at the annual Governor’s Statewide School Safety Training Conference.
She said the beefed-up security measures included more video cameras, new locking systems for doors, more training for emergency situations, a redesigned entrance to the high school, and enhanced communication equipment.
“We look at every decision through a different lens,” Olsen-Farrell said, referring to the added emphasis on school security. “I personally speak to law enforcement every day.”
The event Tuesday drew more than 300 people from across the state, including many educators and law enforcement personnel.
“The difference that I see with this case, for Fair Haven, is that there is no closure,” Fair Haven Police Chief William Humphries, who joined Olsen-Farrell as a panelist, told the audience.
“If you look at other situations where they have a school shooting, there is either an arrest, the officer took the subject out, or there was a suicide,” the police chief added. “Here… every day our parents have to send their students to school knowing there’s still a wolf in the woods.”
Vermont threat followed Florida killings
The conference comes about nine months after a police investigation that ultimately led to the arrest of Jack Sawyer, 19, of Poultney.
Fair Haven Police said they first learned of Sawyer’s alleged threat in Fair Haven only hours after a school shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 people dead. Sawyer was arrested the day after the investigation began.
Sawyer had faced four felony charges, including counts of attempted murder. Those charges were later dismissed, in favor of two misdemeanor offenses, following a Vermont Supreme Court ruling that stated that mere planning did not rise to the level of an attempt under state law.
His attorneys have since filed a motion seeking to have their client treated as a “youthful offender” under a new law. That has resulted in the case being transferred from the adult criminal court to family court under the law that went into effect July 1.
As a result, the proceedings are now taking place behind closed doors, with a focus on treatment and rehabilitation. Due to confidentiality laws, neither the prosecutor or defense attorneys say they can discuss the status of the closed family court hearings.
Changes underway statewide
The discussion at the conference centered on how the case has prompted officials to look at and address school safety concerns across the state.
“It was a game changer for both the state and certainly for the governor,” said Thomas Anderson, commissioner of the state’s Department of Public Safety.
“The evidence of that is what happened after. Within about a month’s period of time we did a safety assessment of virtually every school in the state,” Anderson said. “The month after that, the governor worked with the Legislature to get $4 million for infrastructure improvements.”
Schools applied for grants and awards were made at the start of this school year. Schools are using the grants on surveillance cameras, card readers or other entry systems, new locks and doors, public address systems or two-way radio equipment to communicate in an emergency and new windows, shades, or film to make it more difficult to see inside.
In the Fair Haven case, officials talked Tuesday of the importance of people coming forward when they see something suspicious. They referred to actions of the girl who came forward and reported to police the messages she exchanged with Sawyer over Facebook that helped lead to his arrest.
That girl, a friend of Sawyer of that time, has since been identified in media reports as Angela McDevitt, 17, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
“This was key in bringing this whole case forward,” said Lt. Reg Trayah of the Vermont State Police, another panelist. “It took the courage of one individual to actually say something, point it out to a law enforcement officials. That’s what got the ball rolling on this.”
School resource officers play key role
The panelist also spoke of the importance of school resource officers.
Sawyer, when questioned by police, told them that Scott Alkinburgh, the school resource officer at Fair Haven Union High School, was the only person who could stop his planned school shooting, according to court records.
That’s why Sawyer told detectives he planned to target Alkinburgh first, court records stated.
Humphries, the Fair Haven police chief, said the presence of that officer, according to Sawyer’s own statement, was the biggest impediment he saw in carrying out a shooting at the school.
The police chief added that he understood that hiring a school resource officer could pose financial challenges for smaller schools.
There are only about 30 school resource officers in Vermont, in a state with more than 400 public, private and independent schools, according to Rob Evans, the school safety liaison for the state Agency of Education.
“Maybe if you’re a small school district, maybe you could partner with other school districts, to share the cost,” Humphries told the crowd. “It might be a good way to get that SRO in the door.”
Jason Rasco, principal at Fair Haven Union High School echoed the important role the school resource officer played in responding to the incident.
“To look back and to have gone through what we went through without our SRO, that would have been really difficult,” Rasco said. “I don’t want to think about it, actually.”