Town, police and school officials discuss January security at local schools
BRATTLEBORO -- On Friday, Jan. 25, Ron Stahley, the superintendent of Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, received an e-mail from Brattleboro Police Chief Gene Wrinn that set in motion actions that resulted in precautionary security measures at schools around the region.
"This was an unusual event," said Stahley, during an interview with the Reformer on Thursday.
The e-mail he received on Jan. 25 stated police officers had contact with an individual that led them to believe "the male desired to be involved in shooting a group of kids as he didn't want them to grow up to be adults that he is not happy with."
Wrinn's e-mail also stated the man had made reference to communications with a neo-Nazi group and attempts to purchase weapons.
"There have been no direct threats towards any specific school or groups of children, but there are legitimate concerns," wrote Wrinn.
Following the initial contact, the man was taken into custody and brought to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.
According to documents obtained from Windham Superior Court by the Reformer following an open records request, the man had previously been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and had a history of abusive behaviors.
"We've had previous dealings with him," Wrinn told the Reformer on Wednesday.
As a policy, the Reformer does not identify suspects dealing with mental health issues.
Documents presented by Wrinn to the media revealed interactions between local police and the man over the past seven years. However, the man has no criminal record in Windham County, according to court documents.
Those documents also revealed the man recently had charges filed against him Greenfield, Mass., District Court for assault with a dangerous weapon. According to the court, those charges have since been resolved.
The man most recently came to the attention of police on Dec. 31, 2012, after the department received a call from a mental health worker that the 25-year-old man was experiencing "homicidal/suicidal issues" and had made threats to family members.
Shortly afterward, Lt. Robert Kirkpatrick received a phone call from the man's caretaker in which she stated there was no immediate danger and she was attempting to get help for the man.
However, on Jan. 2, Kirkpatrick once again contacted the caretaker who told him her charge said he wanted to purchase an assault weapon and "shoot down groups of people and he would have no remorse doing so."
Following the call, Kirkpatrick assigned two of his officers to contact the individual and check on his status. Following the contact, the man was taken to Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, where he was held for six days under guard of the Windham County Sheriff's Department until a bed could be found for him in a more secure facility.
On his first day at BMH, a mental health screener concluded the man "presents a significant danger to the community. He is a person in need of treatment for the safety of others."
Court documents indicate this wasn't the first time the man had been subject to mental health oversight. His history included stays at the Brattleboro Retreat, Bridgewater State Hospital in Massachusetts, the Vermont State Hospital and the Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, Mass.
According to Springfield Police Chief Douglas Johnston, the man had also been placed under detention for two days in 2010 at Springfield Hospital.
During his six -day stay at BMH earlier this year, the man made derogatory comments toward Jewish people and made threats about "burning down the town," though he did not identify the town.
"His comments verify that he is a danger," wrote a mental health professional in the documents obtained by the Reformer.
He also said he didn't care if he was dead or alive and "I can't be held for infinity. I'll have my time."
On Jan. 8, the man was admitted to the Retreat, where he was held until Jan. 25, when an involuntary commitment hearing was held before Judge John P. Wesley in Windham Superior Court.
The hearing was requested by Vermont Assistant Attorney General Ira Morris, who is assigned to the Vermont Department of Mental Health. The man was represented by Jack McCullough, the director of the Mental Health Law Project.
On Jan. 25, Wrinn was notified that the state's petition for involuntary commitment had been denied by Wesley and the man had been released into the community.
"It was unusual to receive a call from the AG," said Wrinn. "And knowing the person's history raised concerns."
Wrinn then met with Town Manager Barbara Sondag to discuss how to react to the news.
"I don't know what he said at the Retreat or in court," Sondag told the Reformer on Wednesday. "What we were looking at is where do we think he's going to go and what we should be concerned about. We were making a decision with imperfect information."
The Reformer has requested a transcript of the Jan. 25 hearing but has been told it is considered confidential while the Mental Health Law Project is appealing Wesley's decision to release the Windham Superior Court documents to the media.
One piece of information that jumped out at Sondag was the fact that the man's last known residence was within a few hundred yards of Academy School in West Brattleboro.
"We felt notifying the superintendent of schools was appropriate," she said.
While Sondag said she and Wrinn are sensitive to the complexity of mental health issues in the community, "We don't want to be in a situation where we should have done something and didn't. If someone makes statements about kids three weeks after Newtown it gives us concern."
That afternoon, Wrinn and Sondag met with Stahley and worked out how the town would support precautionary measures at the schools. Support included additional patrols and increased police presence at the schools in Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.
The warning spread and resulted in increased security throughout Windham County and in neighboring towns in New Hampshire.
Wrinn said prior discussions, even before Newtown, had been conducted with the district about security at its schools.
"We're trying to figure out what our new reality is," said Sondag.
During the meeting with Sondag and Wrinn, Stahley realized he would need to notify staff and faculty about the precautionary measures. He also came to realize that notifying school personnel wasn't enough; he would also need to notify parents, thus was the automatic notification system activated. He admitted the notification was vague, but said he didn't feel at liberty to release information that was confidential at the time that he received it.
On Jan. 28, nearly half the students at Brattleboro Union High School stayed home.
Stahley said he is in the process of evaluating security upgrades at all of the schools in WSESU.
"One of the lessons learned is that we can't create a fortress, but the main entrances should be secure," he said.
And the school district is developing strategies that help it create an atmosphere of support for the students, he said, in which problems can be addressed before they escalate out of control.
"Whether it's the Newtown shooter or this kid, they are members of our community and students in our schools," said Stahley.
Bob Audette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.