BRATTLEBORO—A man accused of breaking into a residence on Oak Grove Avenue took refuge in the women’s bathroom at Oak Grove School before he was arrested by police on Feb. 19.
According to Brattleboro Police Capt. Mark Carignan, the man — 31-year-old Christopher R. McLean of Brattleboro — was arrested without incident and no children were in danger.
McLean was arraigned in Windham District Court on charges of burglary of an occupied building, possession of a narcotic drug, and possession of a dangerous or deadly weapon (a folding knife with a 3-inch blade) while in a school building.
McLean is being held without bail, and could face a life sentence in prison for being a habitual offender. He had previously been found guilty of burglary and escaping custody in 2001, unlawful trespass in 2004, and escaping custody in 2005.
Although Brattleboro schools were on winter vacation last week, the Oak Grove School was being used by Meeting Waters YMCA for its Y-ASPIRE program. Several staff members and 28 elementary school-aged children were in the school at the time of the incident.
According to Meeting Waters Executive Director Steve Fortier, Y-ASPIRE is an after-school program administered by the YMCA in several area schools. He said more than 200 children are enrolled in the program.
According to a news release from Carignan, Brattleboro Police received a call at about 1 p.m. from a resident of Oak Grove Avenue that a burglary was in progress at his residence. The person gave police a description of the suspect, who fled on foot.
Among the items missing from the home, police said, were prescription painkillers, jewelry, and coins.
Carignan said several officers began a search of the area. Police then received information that the suspect was at Oak Grove School, about a quarter-mile from the site of the burglary.
According to Carignan, McLean had a child that was in the Y-ASPIRE program, and he was allowed into the school by a staff member.
“Every day, a parent of each child is required to interact with the program and our staff at pick-up time and, on full days, to sign their child in at arrival, as well,” said Fortier in an email. “That means we have about 40,000 interactions with parents each year.
“It’s important for people to understand that the suspect had every right to be in the school building. In the comprehensive registration forms parents must complete before participation in the program, we ask if there is anyone who cannot have contact with their child and, if it is a biological parent, a court order stating this needs to be produced by the custodial parent.
“The father in question had a right to come by the program. Parental involvement is strongly encouraged at Y-ASPIRE, so our staff’s reaction upon him coming to the program site was positive. He’d dropped his child off — both alone and with the mom — a few times during the vacation week, so he was known by our staff, even those who are not normally at his child’s program site.”
McLean’s child was the only child he had contact with, Carignan said.
School officials were notified of what was happening, and began emergency lockdown procedures, Carignan said.
Fortier said the children had no idea that Brattleboro Police — assisted by Vermont State Police and Vermont DMV Enforcement — were searching the school for the suspect, thanks to some quick thinking by the staff.
“As soon as our staff was alerted to a police presence, they brought all children into the art room which serves as our Y-ASPIRE base of operations,” Fortier said. “At that time, about half the children were playing tag games in the gym while the others were involved in an art project in the art room. Once there, our staff lowered the blinds of the windows that look out over the playground and back parking lot.”
Fortier said another staff member “got a TV cart from the library and plugged in a movie as a way of explaining why they had to close the shades.”
When a Brattleboro Police officer arrived at the door, Fortier said another Y-ASPIRE staff member “told the kids that he was there as a ‘community helper,’ something they’ve been talking about throughout the month because our February Y-ASPIRE theme is ‘Our Community.’ Lockdown is a term we only use internally. Basically, we went into lockdown without any children knowing we did so.”
After McLean was found, he surrendered to police without incident, Carignan said, adding that children did not witness the arrest, or any violent events.
Fortier said it was “rare” that there has been an incident of any sort at any of their seven Y-ASPIRE sites over the past 16 years.
“On Halloween this year, our Y-ASPIRE program at Putney Central School went into lockdown when it was reported that someone in a car had waved a gun at a group of children that was trick-or-treating downtown,” he said. “Then there was the incident in Brattleboro two years ago, where someone had made vague threats against children. In each case, our front-line staff did a masterful job keeping the children safe, both physically and emotionally.”
While he called the incident “a very strange situation,” Fortier said he does not anticipate any changes to security.
“Our leadership team and front-line staff run through a lot of potential scenarios and how we’d respond,” he added. “We’ve de-briefed the incident with our leadership team, the staff at the program site, and with our risk-management consultant. We feel this was a unique set of circumstances and do not see anything that we need to change in terms of policies or procedures.”
Mostly, Fortier said he is thankful that everything worked out fine, adding that he and his staff received a lot of positive feedback from parents as well as the police officers.
“Captain Carignan and his fellow officers, as well as Greg, the custodian on duty, did an outstanding job helping us keep the children unaware of what was going on around them,” said Fortier. “Watching children reconnect with their parents at the end of the day, it was clear to me that none of them had an idea what was going on around them while they were having fun.”