How the events of last year changed Vermont schools and law enforcement. Also - where's Jack?
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NINA KECK, HOST: From Vermont Public Radio, this is JOLTED. I'm Nina Keck.
LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, HOST: I'm Liam Elder-Connors. It's been about a year now since the events we covered in the podcast. A lot has happened around Vermont, and we decided it's time for an update.
KECK: What happened in Fair Haven has changed Vermont Schools.
BROOKE OLSEN-FARRELL: We've spent right now about half a million dollars in school security
Districts are spending money on locks and video cameras and social media surveillance. So I wondered - are they spending more on mental health, too?
ELDER-CONNORS: And there are still school threats here in Vermont. But this time, police and prosecutors have new laws they didn't have last year.
JACK HARRIS: Our concern was that there was no guarantee that the guns were secure. So we sent it down to look to see if we could get an emergency order to remove the guns.
KECK: And then there's the big question everyone is asking me- where's Jack?
ELDER-CONNORS: So here we are again.
KECK: When we left off, Republican Governor Phil Scott was still taking heat from the right for pushing for gun control bills. In the primary, and the general election, though - he didn't suffer for it. At all. He won handily - in fact, it may have helped win over some Democrats.
Last summer, Jack Sawyer's case was transferred to Family Court, and all the details became confidential.
Last people knew, Jack had voluntarily checked in to the Brattleboro Retreat - a psychiatric hospital in Vermont. But now, people aren't sure where he is. For students and staff at Fair Haven Union High School, not knowing is disturbing. I talked to Brooke Olsen-Farrell, superintendent of that district.
BROOKE OLSEN-FARRELL: At least several times a month a student or a staff member thinks they've seen him in the community, and so it creates some panic.
BILL HUMPHRIES: Yeah, we do get various reports of sightings in the area. So we have to take them seriously.
KECK: You remember Fair Haven Police Chief William Humphries. His department has investigated a number of bogus Jack Sawyer sightings.
HUMPHIRES: When people walk to school they know there's a wolf in the woods, they just don't know where he is. And I think that really leaves... it's an eerie feeling. And I think that's why you get calls like I think I saw him somewhere because people don't know where he's at.
Humphries himself doesn't know Jack's whereabouts on a day to day basis, the case is that confidential.
HUMPHRIES: The state's attorney can't tell me what's going on with the case. And that's it's frustrating.
He says presumably he'll get a call if he needs to know something. But for such a high profile case, he thinks it's a lousy system.
We didn't expect to find out much new information about Jack either. But when I reached out to Lyn Wolk, Jack's mom - she actually told me where he is. She said Jack is still in the Brattleboro Retreat - that he has in fact been there since last April. She said his case is still proceeding in Family Court.
That might be comforting for some people. But the thing is - we won't know when he leaves, or where he goes.
SCHOOL PA SYSTEM: Just a reminder the therapy dogs are here please stop by the lobby and come see them.
In the lobby at Fair Haven Union High School, there are half a dozen dogs greeting kids. I can hear the clank of collars, the oohs, the aws.
Fair Haven Union High School has begun hosting weekly therapy dogs. It's something other schools in Vermont are trying as well.
STUDENTS: Aw, yay!
Nathaniel Smith is a soft-spoken junior. He comes every week to see his favorite dog - a two-year old black King Charles Spaniel.
SMITH: Yeah, Murphy.
KECK: Why Murphy?
SMITH: Cuz he's so fluffy. He also plays dead.
KECK: No way
SMITH: Yeah, if you give him a treat he plays dead.
KECK: I got to see this.
I'm shocked because after Nathaniel grabs a treat, he actually makes a gun shape with his hand.
SMITH: Murphy: Bang. Bang.
KECK: Murphy topples over - it's adorable - but also kind of weird considering why they started bringing dogs into Fair Haven Union in the first place.
Even Nathaniel might not have found it funny last year, after Jack Sawyer was arrested. He says there was a while there when he didn't feel safe coming to school. But - that was last year.
SMITH: Now? I don't know. I really don't know how I feel about that. But he's going to be watched all the time and I don't think he will be able to step foot on this property, so I think it's a lot better now than it was.
KECK: That's because there are a lot of changes that have been made to the school building.
SMITH: So there is a card scanner on the front door and that is brand new. They put new doors in, and they put new roofing overhangs in, so that it's all open now, there's no hiding places.
KECK: Then I meet a sophomore named Harley Adams. She sits cross legged on the floor with a goldendoodle on her lap.
She points to the new cameras in the ceiling. That's just one of the changes here.
Interior windows have been walled up ...exterior windows now have special screens..... And there's a new district-wide radio system.
ADAMS: So it's just there's a lot more permanent security and like protection.
KECK: And school officials go over security protocols all the time.
ADAMS: A lot of the times you know where to go, you know where someone's going to be, you know what you can do if something happens, who you can go to when something happens.
KECK: Like the new school resource office, Ed Hunter. He's always around.
Part of the school's new security protocol included moving Hunter's office next to the front door - where the principal's office used to be.
Like most police officers, he carries a loaded firearm and wears a taser on his belt. From his desk, he monitors the 80 or so new cameras in the building. All this security cost a lot of money - half a million dollars. And for the district, that's money not spent on arts enrichment, science labs, or faculty.
Julia Adams teaches social studies at Fair Haven Union.
KECK: Does it frustrate you though?
ADAMS: No, because I know what it felt like to feel unsafe here until it was taken care of.
KECK: Fair Haven Union spent a lot in school security. And schools all over the state are finding ways to do the same. After the events of last year, the state ordered every school to review security. And, it offered $4 million dollars to help schools pay for upgrades.
That sounds like a lot of money, but it was divided between more than 200 schools, and some districts felt it didn't go far enough.
TOWN MEETING MODERATOR: Welcome everybody to the Otter Valley Unified Union school district meeting....
KECK: I went to a school budget meeting in Brandon Vermont. School officials wanted voters to approve a three million dollar construction project - most of it to improve school security.
FARNSWORTH: I'm sure that what happened at Fair Haven is in the back of everyone's mind now.
KECK: Brandon resident Frani Farnsworth is one of just a handful of local residents who showed up.
FARNSWORTH: And anytime somebody says 'we think we need this for school safety we've had an audit this is what they say we need, we've got the case study for why it's important.
KECK: Farnsworth and her husband planned to vote for it.
But a week later on Town Meeting day, the measure failed by a small margin.
Other towns are making smaller asks. Like the Essex/Westford school district, which added nearly a half million to its budget for security items, thinks like a new PA system.
A growing number of school districts in Vermont are doing something else, as well.
They're paying companies to surveil their students' social media posts.
ELDER-CONNORS: When Jack Sawyer was a sophomore at Fair Haven Union High School, he posted things on Facebook that made his classmates nervous. Data shows this is a common place for threats to surface.
Now more schools want to know what their students are posting.
There's a company in Burlington that does this. Social Sentinel. It monitors what students post publically online.
Founder Gary Margolis used to head up security at the University of Vermont. His firm uses algorithms to scan billions of data points looking for red flags.
MARGOLIS: And when we discover something and can associate it with a client, we deliver an alert. So in many ways we're akin to a home you know fire detection system. When when the system smells smoke it sends an alert out.
ELDER-CONNORS: The company works with thousands of schools in 35 states.
Fair Haven Union became a client this year. District officials pay about $3 dollars per student for the service.
Jack Sawyer may have grabbed the attention of Vermonters last year - but he's not the only kid who's done things to make school officials nervous.
Since August 2018, there have been at least 35 school threats in Vermont. I drove up to Lyndon, in the northeastern part of the state.
When I got there I talked to police chief, Jack Harris. In January 2019, Harris got a phone call from officials at the local high school.
Over the last few months, a 16-year-old student was overheard making unsettling comments, like saying the problem with school shootings is there aren't enough of them.
Then there was the Halloween costume the student wore:
HARRIS: During a costume assembly He went on stage wearing a large calendar with a red arrow pointing to the date January 31st.
ELDER-CONNORS: In the crowd, the teen told classmates it was a date that would change the school forever.
What happened next might have gone quite differently if last year's events weren't on everyone's mind.
Police quickly used a new law passed after the averted school shooting in Fair Haven. It allowed them to confiscate weapons from people deemed a threat.
Then, they went to get the guns and pick up the kid.
HARRIS: We had a team that did go out to the house, and that team, I went out to the house with them, there were no guns found in the house.
ELDER-CONNORS: His dad had already taken the guns away.
They brought the teen to the station, where officers were ready with a mental health screener, who was waiting to evaluate the sixteen-year-old.
Police are still investigating. But so far, in this case, it doesn't look any charges will be filed.
It does look like the teen will get help. But it may take a while. Last Harris knew, the student was waiting for a bed in a mental health facility.
KECK: He was waiting because there aren't enough mental health crisis beds in Vermont for all the kids who need them.
And in this conversation about averted school shootings you can't talk about security spending without talking about mental health care. Demand for those services in schools is increasing - in part because of the alarm bells of the last year.
In Essex/Westford, a district in Northern Vermont, they're planning to add five new full time behavioral and emotional staff. And that's a statewide trend.
GRIMM: Yes in Rutland County the demand is definitely up.
KECK: Karen Grimm directs school-based services for Rutland Mental Health, part of a network of state funded community mental health agencies in Vermont.
Grimm has staff embedded in 15 Rutland County schools. People who do therapy, connect families with resources and work one on one with some kids.
She says since the incident at Fair Haven last year, they've added ten new school contracts.
GRIMM: I'm already having some schools talk about additional supports in their communities for next year.
KECK: The federal funding has been available for years, but demand is going up across the state now. More than three-quarters of schools in Vermont use these services. And its putting the state at risk of hitting its Medicaid cap. Now, Vermont is asking for almost $18 million more Medicaid dollars for just this program.
ELDER-CONNORS: So here we are: schools are spending more money on security - and adding more mental health services.
When there are threats, police can take away people's guns - and they do. And everyone is paying a lot more attention to what kids say.
Tracy Shriver is. She's Windham County State's attorney.
SHRIVER: Five years ago I would not have every school resource officer tell me when he or she investigated some threatening comments by a student but in the last 12 months I've made it very clear to my police officers that I do want to know.
ELDER-CONNORS: Two weeks after that incident in Lyndon, police got wind of a threat to the high school in her neck of the woods: Brattleboro.
But Shriver decided there wasn't enough evidence for criminal charges. And here's the thing. That's what happens most of the time.
SHRIVER: Teenagers say stupid things, teenagers say threatening things, teenages say things to express their anger and frustration and if there were criminal charges that resulted out of all those things, I would be much more busy than I already am.
ELDER-CONNORS: As I talk to state officials who are now keeping count of school threats, and police and prosecutors who respond - it leaves me wondering where the line is. Between kids talking, kids needing help, and an actual crime.
And that's what all this comes down to: judgment calls.
Journalists have to make judgment calls - what's newsworthy.
School administrators and taxpayers have to decide what to spend money on. Parents, friends and prosecutors have to decide when to act or sound the alarm. Because this stuff is scary, and the stakes are high. And nobody wants to mess it up.
JOLTED is reported and produced by Nina Keck and me, Liam Elder-Connors
Emily Corwin is our editor and project manager
Sarah Ashworth is our Senior Editor
Angela Evancie is VPR's Managing Editor for Podcasts
John Van Hoesen is VPR's Chief Content Officer
KECK: Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions
Engineering support is from Chris Albertine
We had digital support from Jonathan Butler, Noah Villamarin-Cutter and Meg Malone.
Support for JOLTED comes from the VPR Innovation Fund.