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Balancing safety with the need to know

Clark: Schools, law enforcement agencies were in a ‘lose/lose’ situation during last week’s security blitz

NEWFANE—Warnings of “non-specific” threats made against school-aged children spread through the Windham County community last week.

Law enforcement officers and school administrators responded with heightened security measures at area schools. Many parents called for more information but received little.

The situation was lose/lose no mater what had happened, said Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark.

Clark has served in law enforcement in Vermont since 1991 and elected to the post of Sheriff in 2007. He retired from the Vermont Army National Guard last summer after 20 years of service.

According to Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley, the schools slowly relaxed some of the security measures they had begun on Jan. 28 as the week went on. Although the doors remained locked, police presence decreased.

On Jan. 30, students had recess outside for the first time, he said.

Many weren’t happy with how officials handled last week, he said. But, if law enforcement and administrators did nothing and children were hurt, then parents would say officials should have done more.

The Windham County Sheriff’s Department receives funding through contracts with communities or organizations. Many of the 15 communities the department works with do not have a police force. The department also contracts with Brattleboro Union High School to have deputies, called School Resource Officers, onsite.

The schools made their decisions immersed in a post-Sandy Hook and Columbine environment, said Clark.

“There’s a lot of pressure on schools,” he said.

Still, telling parents that law enforcement will up security at their children’s schools, but not telling the reason why, makes things worse, Clark added.

Clark advises parents and officials to continue responding as needed, but remaining vigilant.

If communities only stay alert when they think there is a problem, then that doesn’t keep children safe either, he said.

Clark said the heightened security measures at the school did not affect his department as a whole.

In Clark’s view, the Brattleboro Police received information that had not been fully vetted. As the information volleyed through various hands, it was expounded upon.

He did not know whether officials would have changed their reaction with vetted information.

The individual who allegedly made the threat has not been charged with a crime, said Clark. Releasing this person’s name would be a violation of his or her rights.

Although Clark hasn’t spoken with local school administrators, he thinks the response situation may come with some lessons learned.

Wording for press releases and other notices will need careful consideration. Law enforcement at all levels will need to better vet information without assumptions, said Clark.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #189 (Wednesday, February 6, 2013).

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