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Local schools heighten security

Town officials receive word of threat, but community says not enough information

With additional reporting from Eben Holderness and Morgan Broadfoot. Calls to Sondag, WSESU Superintendent Ron Stahley, and Principals John Reed and Ingrid Chrisco were not returned by press time.

BRATTLEBORO—A vague, late-night automated call on Jan. 27 from the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union (WSESU) alerting parents about plans for heightened security at the local schools the next day prompted a variety of reactions.

At the top of the list, confusion.

The message conveyed to each of the 11 schools through the WSESU’s “Alert Now” system told listeners that school doors would be locked Monday, Jan. 28 due to security concerns. Law enforcement officers would conduct patrols at the schools, parents were told.

A second message went out to parents Monday night saying that the increased security measures would likely continue through the week.

The Commons has learned that some members of the school administration were informed of the identity of a person making the nonspecific threats via the police department. This individual has never been affiliated with the high school.

According to sources, the police are watching this person, but cannot take action because the person is not under arrest.

According to a public service announcement from Brattleboro Town Manager Barbara Sondag, town officials received information on Friday, Jan. 25, that “a person, who had previously made nonspecific threats regarding school-age people, might be returning to the area.”

The Commons has found no evidence to substantiate a rumor that the threats came from an individual who was once a patient at the Brattleboro Retreat. No source could confirm the identity of the person who allegedly made the threats that launched the additional measures.

Windham Central Supervisory Union also sent the alert to parents on Monday and locked doors at its schools.

On Tuesday, Brattleboro Police Chief Eugene Wrinn categorically stated that “there’s truly been no direct threat made to any school or any group.”

But over the previous two days, posts on social media sites like Facebook reflected parents’ concern and frustration with the situation and lateness of the call.

“So what is it they want us to do with this information?” posted Judy Berger Tharp.

Other parents posted plans to keep their children home. Nearly half of students stayed home Monday.

The extra security measures were not as pronounced at the Brattleboro Union High School and Brattleboro Area Middle School, which routinely lock their front doors, as they were at the elementary schools.

The high school/middle school campus has a dedicated police guard on site.

Representatives from the police and fire departments met with town officials to develop a response plan, Sondag wrote in the release.

Town officials then contacted the WSESU “to alert them to our concerns,” Sondag wrote. The town “asked them to be extra vigilant during their daily activities, and to notify school personnel of increased patrols by law enforcement,” she added.

“Since the recent tragedy at Newtown, we are extremely sensitive to possible threats to our children and will respond in a proactive manner,” wrote Sondag. “While we live in a time that requires us to be watchful, the individual in question has violated no laws and our response must therefore be balanced.”

The police department is not releasing any information at this time, said Wrinn.

Wrinn said he realized he was not divulging any useful information and said that officials are trying to find a balanced way to release information to the schools so administrators can take prudent measures.

All information is going through the town manager, and people should refer to Sondag’s press release, he said.

Brattleboro Police, personnel from the Windham County Sheriff’s Department, and Vermont State Police performed spot checks at the elementary schools.

Improvement in communication

“This shows a great improvement in communication between law enforcement and the school, as it has not always been this easy,” said BUHS Principal Steve Perrin.

“I think it’s a real balancing act as the person hasn’t committed a crime, so we have to balance mental health with a true threat. Since we feel we may have precipitated much of the parental concern, students will not be receiving unexcused absences if they did not come to school today,” Perrin said on Monday.

Teachers were asked to keep their eyes open for suspicious activity.

“Coming to school this morning wasn’t a big worry on my part,” said Roy Lidie, a science assistant at the high school.

“It seemed to me everything was under control, and everything that could be done short of closing the school has been done,” he added. “The security and inability of access to the building is already in place and has been for years, and we’re as safe as we can be.”

On Tuesday, Academy School Principal Andy Paciulli said the students’ mood was “very similar” to the atmosphere on Monday, but with higher attendance.

The elementary school houses students from kindergarten through sixth grade.

According to Paciulli, attendance on Monday was 52 percent out of 400 students. On Tuesday, it rose to 90 percent with some students out due to illness.

“There’s no hangover effect that I can see,” Paciulli said.

He said the main change to Academy School’s procedure on Monday was locking the doors after the morning late bell.

A police officer also joined the “greeters” — three paraprofessionals and Paciulli.

Paciulli said students’ individual responses to the extra security varied.

Many of the kids were not aware of the heightened security measures, he said.

The principal visited each classroom. The lower grades responded with curiosity about why so many kids were out of school. The students in the upper grades tended to be more worried, he noted.

A balancing act

Paciulli said educators face a balancing act when discussing potentially frightening subjects.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” he said.

A lot depends on a student’s age and personality, Paciulli said. In most cases, taking cues from a student’s questions and providing the most age-appropriate answers is a good place to start.

“There’s always more work to be done,” said Paciulli about emergency response to potential school violence.

School shootings such as the 1999 Columbine massacre in Colorado, and last month’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., changed how schools respond, he said.

Academy School held a meeting for parents after the Sandy Hook attack to discuss school safety. Of the 30 parents who attended the meeting, most expressed the desire to lock the school’s doors, said Paciulli.

That sentiment has changed from 10 years ago, he added.

“[Responding to violence] keeps evolving,” Paciulli said. “The need to do that is unfortunate.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #188 (Wednesday, January 30, 2013).

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