A Windham Country Sheriff crusier is parked outside of the Brattleboro Area Middle School as security was heightened at area schools, last week. (Zachary
A Windham Country Sheriff crusier is parked outside of the Brattleboro Area Middle School as security was heightened at area schools, last week. (Zachary P. Stephens/Brattleboro Reformer)
Wednesday February 6, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- More than a week after Windham Southeast Supervisory Union schools went into a heightened state of security, triggering a ripple effect of similar actions around Windham County and neighboring New Hampshire, extra vigilance is still being exercised at schools throughout the Brattleboro area.

WSESU Superintendent Ron Stahley on Tuesday said discussions about further security measures, like the ones which occurred last week, had been taking place since students returned from winter break.

"We've been dealing with this since the beginning of January," Stahley said, "how to balance between safe and secure buildings while remaining welcoming to students and parents."

Stahley said he met with other town officials last week, including Town Manager Barbara Sondag and Windham County State's Attorney Tracey Shriver, to discuss the actions taken by the schools. The decision was made to continue certain protocols -- maintaining secure buildings, locking doors, being aware of people entering and exiting school buildings -- while others, like restrictions on outdoor recess and after-school activities, were relaxed.

"Obviously the goal here is to remain vigilant," Stahley said. "Individual schools and school boards had been talking about these measures since (the shooting at) Sandy Hook."

He was making reference to when a gunman last December forced his way into the small elementary school in Newtown, Conn., and shot and killed 26 people, including 20 students, before turning the gun on himself.

Stahley also said that the security issue would be revisited at tonight's Brattleboro Town School Board meeting, scheduled to take place at 5 p.m. at Academy School. He added that the administration had developed a survey to go out to local parents regarding school safety issues and concerns.

"We need to continue the discussions," he said.

So what happened?

Many area parents this week are still wondering what exactly transpired to cause school officials to enact the safeguards placed on schools and students Jan. 28.

Brattleboro Town Manager Barbara Sondag released a statement Monday, Jan. 28, stating the town first heard about a possible security issue the previous Friday afternoon.

"Town officials were notified that a person who had previously made nonspecific threats regarding school-age people might be returning to the area," Sondag stated. "Taking the threats seriously, representatives from police, fire and town administration met to develop a response plan."

The lateness of the announcement (some parents reported receiving robocalls as late as 9 and 10 p.m. Sunday night), combined with the vagueness of the information provided about the threat, lead to absentee rates as high as 40 to 50 percent, according to estimates from Stahley, last week.

"The timing was bad," Stahley said on Tuesday. "The vagueness of the message. ... I can't control that. My gut reaction (over the weekend) was that staff needed to know if we were going to have extra security (on Monday). If I'm notifying staff of that, parents have the right to know what we know."

When asked about parents' reaction to the perceived "lack of information," Stahley acknowledged that "Of course it's disconcerting. I had to make a judgement before Monday morning, about what information we had and how we should react."

Other Windham County school administrators last week empathized with the reaction of area parents.

"When you inform people of precautions, then they have a heightened anxiety," said Steven John, Windham Central Supervisory Union superintendent.

Christopher Kibbe, Windham Northeast Supervisory Union superintendent, said administrators "try to give out as much information as we can."

"The line you have to be careful about is, what isn't public information, and what are our emergency procedures?" Kibbe said last week, adding that, "In the wrong hands, these could be used in really unpleasant and dangerous ways."

Stahley said that the challenge administrators now face is how to transition from that immediate threat to how schools operate on a daily basis.

And while he said that he didn't have any further information to offer following last Friday's meeting with town officials, other area administrators by last weekend had begun sharing what they had heard.

In a weekly newsletter to Winchester, N.H., parents, Superintendent Jim Lewis stated that a man who had made threatening remarks toward children had been taken into custody after being "at-large" for a few days.

"Due to the inappropriate nature of the comments, the Winchester Police alerted us Monday morning," Lewis stated. "We felt that although the man was in Brattleboro, he was close enough to cause us to go into a modified Shelter-in-Place."

When asked about Lewis' comments on Monday, Brattleboro Police Chief Gene Wrinn said he was not aware of anyone being taken into custody, and reiterated what he told officials last week.

"We had heard that non-specific threats had been made some time ago," Wrinn said, "so we reached out and made sure the Supervisory Union was aware."

When asked about the lack of information on a possible suspect, Wrinn said his department "was aware of a person," but stressed that "no laws had been broken."

In an e-mail to Rockingham School Board officials, sent the morning of Jan. 28, Kibbe made reference to information he had heard "third-hand," about an individual that had been released from the Brattleboro Retreat, and that said individual had made reference to guns and Sandy Hook.

"We knew what was happening in Brattleboro on Monday morning," Kibbe told the Reformer on Tuesday. "So I sent the message out to our principals to make sure we continued to use the security measures we already had in place."

Rob Simpson, the president and chief executive officer of the Brattleboro Retreat, would not confirm or deny whether the person in question was a patient at the mental health facility in Brattleboro.

However, said Simpson, if the Retreat was concerned about a person's stability and whether that person was a danger to the community, it would file commitment proceedings in the local court.

The Reformer did obtain court documents from Jan. 25 that indicated such an attempt was made with an unidentified male.

"The judge has the responsibility to make a decision whether or not the case we have has enough merit to deprive a person of his or her rights," said Simpson. "It doesn't matter what people think a person may or may not have said, it's what the judge has determined."

He said following Newtown it's important for people to be aware of both sides of the coin -- the rights of the individual and the safety of a community.

But if there is any doubt, said Simpson, he will err on the side of protecting the community and ask a judge to make the decision on whether a person should be committed.

"The community at large has a right to be protected from somebody who may be dangerous."

Simpson reminded the Reformer that the local judges have had a long relationship with the Retreat and are not "rookies" when it comes to mental health issues.

"We're not going to go back to the Salem witch trials," he said. "But on the other hand, if we have a reason to believe someone is dangerous, we will take care of our children and protect our community."

During a visit to the Reformer offices on Tuesday, Vermont Secretary of Education Armando Vilaseca said that these days learning and security go hand-in-hand.

"Schools have to be really careful," Vilaseca said. "Ultimately, it used to be reading, writing, arithmetic -- (now), it's safety -- first and foremost, safety."

While Vilaseca was not aware of the specifics about the Brattleboro incident, he said that "there was enough of a concern that making schools aware of this and having them be on a little higher (security) profile can't hurt."

He added: "I think you overreact to make sure the kids are safe."

Bob Audette contributed to this report.

Tom D'Errico can be reached at tderrico@reformer.com or 802-254-2311 ext. 252. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_DErrico.