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JOLTED, Part 5: Threat Assessment (Transcript)

'JOLTED' is VPR's five-part podcast about a school shooting that didn't happen, and the surprising things that did.
Aaron Shrewsbury For VPR

How do you know if a young person is plotting a school massacre? And what do you do then?

Note: These transcripts are provided for accessibility and reference. If you are able, we strongly recommend listening to this episode of JOLTED at joltedpodcast.org. Please check the audio before quoting in print, as the transcript may contain minor errors.


EMILY CORWIN, EDITOR: I'm Emily Corwin, the the editor of this podcast. Just a heads up, this is our fifth and final episode. If you haven't heard episodes one through four, we recommend you start at the beginning. Everything will make a lot more sense.


LIAM ELDER-CONNORS, HOST: It's a Friday night and Nina and I are at a chili cook off in Fair Haven, the Vermont town where this story began.

It's summer. Tables with crock pots and cold drinks line the sidewalk just off Main Street, and several dozen people sit in folding chairs, tapping their feet along with the music.

ELDER-CONNORS, ON TAPE: So have you had some good chili so far today?

ELDER-CONNORS, ON TAPE: I had and I thought it was good.

ELDER-CONNORS: School is out, and the shock of Jack Sawyer has worn off from what it was this earlier this year.

NINA KECK, HOST: While Liam tries some chili, I see two women reading on a big front porch not far away, so I make my way over.

The women live in a historic mansion that's been made into senior apartments. It's right across from the town green.

KECK, ON TAPE: Oh it's really beautiful.

We chat about the town for a few minutes, then I ask about Jack Sawyer. Susan O'Dell nods.

SUSAN O'DELL:  I have grandchildren who go to the grade school and my oldest one is going to be in 8th grade next year, so she's going to be in the high school the following year, and I'm just scared that something like this may happen again.

KECK: Next to Susan is her friend, Judith Armento.
ARMENTO:  It's a good Italian name, it's A-R-M-E-N-T-O.

KECK: Judith has thought a lot about Jack Sawyer.

ARMENTO: I know you can't arrest somebody for thinking about something. But he had all of that in his mind and he, you know, if someone didn't say something to the authorities, who knows? He might have gone through with it. And I don't know. So I have no idea where he is now. I think he's supposed to be with his father and he was supposed to go to Brattleboro to have some psychiatric help. But is that happening?"

KECK: That's just it. We don't know.


KECK:  From Vermont Public Radio this is JOLTED.

I'm Nina Keck

ELDER-CONNORS: And I'm Liam Elder Connors
This is our final episode. It's been seven months since Jack was arrested. And a lot is unresolved.

JASON RASCO, FAIR HAVEN UNION PRINCIPAL: For us it's a little different. Like in a Parkland, there was an end, if you will, to it. It happened. Columbine, it happened and there was some finality to it. For us, there's question marks.

JULIA ADAMS, FAIR HAVEN UNION TEACHER:  We're in the dark. The misdemeanor charges, we don't know where those are at. I don't know if he's in Brattleboro Retreat still. I don't know if we're going to know anything.

ELDER-CONNORS: We've got questions too. How do you know if a young person is plotting a school massacre? What do you do with someone who is? How do you learn to trust them again? And how do you stop students  from wanting to hurt each other, in the first place?


ELDER-CONNORS:  Part Five - Threat Assessment.

KECK: As far as we know, Jack Sawyer is at a psychiatric hospital in southern Vermont called Brattleboro Retreat. He voluntarily checked himself in after his parents posted bail, back in April.

We assume he's been there ever since. But when we call to confirm this, they cite privacy laws, and don't tell us.

It turns out the same goes for Fair Haven Police Chief William Humphries.

KECK, ON TAPE: How do we know he'll stay in Brattleboro, I mean he's there voluntarily, right?
WILLIAM HUMPRHIES, FAIR HAVEN POLICE CHIEF: I'm not exactly sure of what the court -- I know he's in a mental --
KECK, ON TAPE: You gotta be sure! You're you're the --
HUMPHRIES: I mean I know he's in a mental health facility.
KECK, ON TAPE: I'm surprised at that, so you can't pick up the phone, call and say I'm just checking, is Jack Sawyer still there?
HUMPHRIES: Nope, that was a condition that was worked out through the courts.
KECK, ON TAPE:   So how do you find out if he gets out?
HUMPHRIES:  The state's attorney can call - the state's attorney's office. You know there's a designated contact, so they can call and say he's here he's not there he checked himself out. And then that information to get relayed back to us.
KECK, ON TAPE: She calling every day?
HUMPHRIES: As far as I know.

KECK: I called the state's attorney's office to find out if they are, in fact, calling every day. They didn't get back to me.

This summer, Jack's lawyers asked to move his case to Family Court. There, Jack, who's now 19, would be considered a juvenile instead of an adult.  We don't know for sure if this happened, though, because cases involving juveniles are confidential.


HOGAN: Vermont Superior court this is Penny can I help you?
KECK: I found this out when I called the court in Rutland. Penny Hogan, the court operations manager picked up.

KECK, ON TAPE:  Hi Penny this is Nina Keck with Vermont Public Radio calling. I'm wondering who in the family division I can talk to to get updated information on the Jack Sawyer case?
HOGAN: Um, there wouldn't be anybody to talk to on that, it's a confidential matter so they're not going to get any information from the court.
KECK, ON TAPE: Is anything ever released? Like once Family Court hears Jack Sawyer's case, once it's resolved, will any information ever be given out to the public on what happens to his case?


By default, adult court records are public. But minors' judicial proceedings are confidential. In Vermont, sharing information from juvenile court records? It's a crime.

Jack's mom and stepdad live in Florida, and his father lives in Poultney, next door to Fair Haven, where he owns a contracting business. Family members say they visit Jack regularly at Brattleboro Retreat.

When I spoke to Jack's older sister Allison, she said she and her brother were talking by phone every week or so.

KECK, ON TAPE: Does Jack realize the trauma he's caused?

ALLISON SAWYER: I don't know if he does now. He might. He definitely did not, in the very beginning, understand at all the impact of anything he had done or understand the negative consequences, which might have been also why he was so open with the cops and didn't ask for a lawyer. I do recall asking him afterwards he was like, 'Yeah that was really stupid.'But I'm pretty sure he understands at this point and I know he has mentioned he wants to write to everyone who is on his list just apologizing.

KECK: In Allison's view, Jack's diary, the one he titled, 'The Journal of an Active Shooter,' and his confession to police?

SAWYER: It seemed to me more like a cry for help.

KECK: At some point, Jack will probably leave the psychiatric hospital he's staying at now, assuming he hasn't already.

After his family posted bail, Jack's dad, David Sawyer, agreed to supervise him while Jack's misdemeanor charges work their way through the courts. At the same time, Jack will have a 24/7 curfew at his dad's place. He can't go to Fair Haven, and he can't have contact with Angela McDevitt, the friend who reported him to police.

KECK, ON TAPE: One of the things the court decided when Jack was released on bail is that your dad would be responsible for him 24/7. Is that a concern at all for you?

ALLISON SAWYER: Yeah, definitely. Not only is my dad not capable of restraining Jack or you know, my dad can not stay up for 24 hours a day and watch Jack at all times. But it also would affect my dad's business completely because I can't imagine too many people wanting Jack to join him at the work site. And also I just don't see that being the best move forward for Jack's mental health or anyone's health or his health and his safety.

KECK: I did reach out to Jack's father David Sawyer to ask him about this. But he said out of respect for his son's court case, he did not want to comment.


ELDER-CONNORS : So here we are. We've got a 19-year-old who everyone in Fair Haven knows had wanted to shoot up the high school. And he won't be spending the rest of his life in prison. So what happens next?

We talked to a lot of people who specialize in preventing mass violence. People who've worked for Homeland Security. Officials at the Secret Service. People who work in mental health.

They all say yes, there is a way to keep a community safe when someone like Jack Sawyer comes home -- using something called:


Threat assessments. The idea was developed by the Secret Service, initially to manage threats to the President of the United States, and high profile government buildings. After Columbine, the Secret Service adapted it to protect school children.

LINA ALATHARI, CHIEF OF THE NATIONAL THREAT ASSESSMENT CENTER AT THE U.S. SECRET SERVICE: The primary goal of a threat assessment is to intervene, provide support and care, to deviate somebody off that path that might cause them to engage in violence.

ELDER-CONNORS: Dr. Lina Alathari is Chief of the National Threat Assessment Center at the US Secret Service.

Alathari says the process can begin at any time. Maybe someone says something sketchy, or jokes about killing themself. You could start then. Or, maybe someone's a known threat. You can still start the process.

ALATHARI: Each case is unique. So there is no cookie-cutter approach.


ELDER-CONNORS: The first step is to put together a team. At a school, this might include a guidance counselor, a school resource officer, a principal, a teacher, and the child's parents. That team might meet every week or two. They'll ask whether the student has access to weapons, if they're capable of pulling off an attack, and they'll identify the student's motivations. It's all about constant communication.

Perhaps the most important part of the whole process? It doesn't end. The assessments and interventions happen over and over and over. For example, when the Secret Service responds to people who threaten the President?

ALATHARI:  We may have to work with them for years in order to make sure that they are getting the help that they need. Or also for us to even monitor and talk to their families to make sure that they're not deteriorating.

KECK: Remember back to March of 2016? Jack was a Sophomore at Fair Haven Union, and he wrote an essay about Columbine. In response, school officials began this very process. But then Jack Sawyer dropped out of school. That's when he ran away to California. And the threat assessment never really got off the ground.

KEVIN CAMERON, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE CANADIAN CENTRE FOR THREAT ASSESSMENT AND TRAUMA RESPONSE: The reality is at some point in time everyone is going to get out and back into the community.

KECK: This is Kevin Cameron. He runs the Canadian Centre for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response in Alberta. He's also a family therapist. He's worked with a lot of people in positions similar to Jack Sawyer's. He's never met Jack, but he has listened to our podcast.

Cameron says treatment for violent behavior at a residential facility might be a first step, but it isn't enough.

CAMERON: Because they're now surrounded with one-on-one staff to client ratio; often they're being medicated; and often they're away from whatever the key stressors or risk enhances are. So people artificially appear to be lower risk while in treatment facilities or in counseling unless the professionals are doing it the modern way, our way.

KECK: Jack Sawyer wasn't sent to Ironwood for violent behavior. But his mom pointed out to us that he seemed to be doing well in the program. It was after he left Ironwood that he began writing the journal.

Cameron says he prefers to supervise a person and treat them in the context of their real life, including at home.

He has this idea he always returns to. It's that a person can only try to kill another person if they feel justified. If you can figure out what their justification is, you can eliminate that desire.

Cameron and other experts we talked to say the desire to attack a school is often tied to something from a child's early years, like trauma, or family dynamics that prevented attachment.

And addressing those things? It takes a lot. It might take family therapy, individual therapy, and supervision. And it might take years.

CAMERON: You know some folks including some of my clinical colleagues down there in Vermont may be listening to this or thinking 'wow that's too much.' Well I say to parents all the time, I say to professionals all the time: Treat the big things big, and the little things little. It is not every day that we have somebody who had detailed plans, 30 pages of justification I guess, I assume, for why they were thinking of doing it, who have obtained a weapon, have come that close. That's a really big thing. With a case like this, if I was working it, we'd be pulling out the stops

KECK: Cameron says the fact that this is a high profile case in Vermont will make it extra difficult for Jack. He offers two solutions.

One is to apologize. Cameron says it really does reduce everyone's anxiety and that reduces the risk of violence.

The second solution - move.

CAMERON: There have been high profile cases where I have said to parents and caregivers, considering what has occurred here, have you considered actually moving to a different community that is less emotionally reactive, because the reality  is your child's behaviors have traumatized the community. And many people on my advice have actually done that.

KECK: So there's a roadmap. A process for someone like Jack Sawyer to move forward in his life. Even in his hometown. But who would take charge of the process?

If Jack were still in school, the school could oversee this sort of effort. But he's not in school anymore. So it's unclear who would oversee this process, for Jack.

It might be the court. A judge could order probation and therapy. And then Jack would have to follow the rules, or suffer the consequences.

But again, because Jack's case is likely being resolved in Family Court, we just don't know.  And we probably won't ever know.

ELDER-CONNORS: Before you can even deal with a threat, someone has to say something. How do you make sure that happens before it's too late?
One academic says studying averted school shootings can help answer this question.

JEFF DANIELS, CHAIR OF COUNSELING AND REHABILITATION DEPARTMENT, WEST VIRGINIA UNIVERSITY. Ok, I'm I'm Jeff Daniels. I'm a professor and Department Chair for the Department of counseling rehabilitation counseling and counseling psychology at West Virginia University.

ELDER-CONNORS: Daniels says the schools he's studied which have avoided mass attacks? They have some things in common.

DANIELS:  Things like breaking the code of silence.

ELDER-CONNORS: Daniels says in almost all of the schools he studied, somebody - often a kid - spoke up, and prevented the violence.

On the flip side, according to the Secret Service, in most schools where an attack actually took place, someone knew it was going to happen, but they didn't say anything.

DANIELS: There's still this idea of 'I didn't want to be a snitch.'

ELDER-CONNORS: Think of Jack's friend, Angela McDevitt. She didn't want to get Jack in trouble. But when he sent her startling phone messages, she knew she couldn't ignore them. She reached out to a friend, and then, to her school guidance counselor.

And for that kind of thing to happen, Daniels says schools have to foster a certain kind of environment.

DANIELS: One school that I went to, after I interviewed with the principal, it was lunchtime and he took me into the teachers' lounge and there were only two teachers eating. And out in the cafeteria, every single round table was a teacher eating with the students. And he said it's just amazing that once these kids get to see this teacher as a human being and not just a teacher, not just an authority, they tell all kinds of things, like struggles that they're having in their life or maybe struggles that a friend is having.

KECK: So once someone wants to shoot up a school, the best intervention is good communication. But how do you stop a kid from wanting to shoot up a school in the first place? We started looking at research about this and found Heather Alden.

HEATHER ALDEN, EXPO ELEMENTARY SCHOOL SOCIAL WORKER: We have lots of rituals about saying hello when the kids come in in the morning and we give them high fives when they get on the bus or go home.

KECK: Alden is a social worker at an elementary school in Minnesota.

What she says sounds obvious, right? But Alden says no child should feel invisible. She's seen staff meetings where educators try to prevent this. They figure it out by marking the kids' names they know.

ALDEN: They'll put all the kids names on a wall, up to like thousand kids, and they're like okay, let's make a list everybody, put your dots on the kids that you have a connection to or you know something about. And then whatever kids are left over they divide among the staff and say okay we have to connect with them. So I think that's really important.

KECK: According to Alden, and Daniels, too, kids' relationships with adults are important for them to thrive. But one survey we read suggested one in every five kids doesn't have any adults in their lives who care about them, support them, and challenge them.


ELDER-CONNORS: When a community faces a threat, often the first instinct is to do something tangible. For a school, change the locks, install new camera systems, add police patrols.  

Fair Haven Union's school district spent $274,000 on security upgrades after Jack Sawyer's arrest.

The state of Vermont then handed out nearly $4 million in school safety grants, with another $1 million set to become available this fall. Governor Phil Scott called for that spending after he heard about Jack Sawyer.

And remember, Jack Sawyer's actions also pushed the Governor to call for new gun laws. So, the obvious question is: will those new laws make a difference if Vermont has another Jack Sawyer?

MITZI JOHNSON, SPEAKER OF THE VERMONT HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES: Under the laws we have right now, he would not be able to buy a gun in Vermont.

ELDER-CONNORS: This is Mitzi Johnson, the Democratic Speaker of the House. She pushed hard for the new gun laws.  

Jack Sawyer was 18 when he bought that shotgun at Dick's. Now, with some exceptions, you have to be 21 to buy a gun.

JOHNSON: And in fact because of the laws passed his guns were taken away because he has proven himself a danger to others. And so that right there shows me how effective they are.

ELDER-CONNORS: Jack's guns were taken away using the state's new ëred flag' law. It allows the courts to take weapons away from people who are at risk of suicide or other violence.

In fact, a study published in June found that suicides by gun decreased by nearly 14 percent in Connecticut when that state began enforcing its red flag law.

In Vermont, the law has been used 11 times since April.  

The idea of a mass attack in Vermont motivated lawmakers to enact changes, including the red flag law and a ban large capacity magazines and bump stocks. Yet some of these measures may not be as easy to enforce.

Take the ban on high capacity magazines, probably the most controversial measure. The law allows people to keep magazines bought before the October 1. But there isn't an easy way to tell when someone actually bought a magazine.   

JOHN CAMPBELL, VT DEPARTMENT OF STATE'S ATTORNEYS AND SHERIFFS: And if a law enforcement officer happens to come across you with your gun and its large capacity magazine if there is no way for him or her to tell when that was purchased. If it was before the enactment the law then there's no way for us to prosecute.

ELDER-CONNORS: That's John Campbell, he heads up Vermont's Department of State's Attorneys and Sheriffs.

He says the magazine ban will more effectively stop Vermont businesses from selling large capacity magazines than it will stop people from possessing them here.

The universal background check law may be hard to enforce as well. How do you make sure every private gun sale includes a background check?

But Campbell says the law is there for a reason, and if there is evidence that a person is breaking that law, prosecutors can follow up.

CAMPBELL: Just like any other crime or activity, you look at it as a prosecutor and make a determination of whether - why did they do this why did they fail to follow the law. So it's all case specific really.


ELDER-CONNORS: There are two lawsuits pending that challenge the most controversial gun restrictions. Again, those are the universal background checks, raising the purchase age for buying guns and banning high capacity magazines and bump stocks.

The plaintiffs argue these laws violate the right to bear arms as written in the state constitution.


KECK: A few weeks ago I met up with a social studies teacher from Fair Haven Union High School, Julia Adams. She didn't want to talk to me at first. She's tired of the whole Jack Sawyer thing.
Jack didn't shoot anybody. But Julia says she read every page of Jack's journal. And she's still mad.

ADAMS:  I mean it felt like something had been stolen in a way, and a lot of people had said that, you know, it just was like this really icky feeling like we've been violated.

KECK: Some of the people Jack said he wanted to kill are close of friends of hers. Julia is still teaching at Fair Haven Union. But five faculty and staff members left at the end of last year because of Jack Sawyer.

ADAMS: We have we have a couple of empty classrooms upstairs that haven't been filled yet and the kids walk by and like you know I miss this person and you know where did they end up going?  So that I think has kind of left a shadow of you know we lost a lot of people and a lot of good teachers.

Julia says she's not scared. But she admits now, any time she walks into a classroom, she automatically thinks to herself: if I had to get out of here fast, which way would I run?

ADAMS: Yeah I went to an active shooter training over the summer with airsoft guns. I mean you got shot with pellets. So they had the noise going on, they had screams being played and they had gunshots being played. I remember just being like 'I never thought as a teacher that I would ever have to go to like a back to school training that was something like this.'



KECK: It's a balmy Friday night and the football field behind Fair Haven Union is blazing with light.  


Hundreds of fans fill the stands, most of them wearing Slater blue.

Jackie Phillips is selling tickets to tonight's game. She's got a walkie-talkie and a money pouch. It's three bucks to get in.

KECK:  What are you doing tonight at the football game?  
PHILLIPS: We are working the gate!  As we do every home football game!


During the day, Phillips works in the school office, a job she's held for fifteen years. But on Friday nights, she puts on a Slater's T-shirt and becomes a super fan.

KECK, ON TAPE: So who're you playing tonight?
PHILLIPS:  We are playing Otter Valley,  
KECK, ON TAPE:  Are you going to win?  
PHILLIPS:  Uh, Yeah we areÖ..laughter
KECK, ON TAPE:  You just threw some shade!
PHILLIPS:  [LAUGHING] I am the most competitive person you'll come across. And if you ask any kid in this building they'll tell you who's the most competitive, Jackie they'll tell you.

Looking around the stands and talking to Jackie, it seems like people just wanna let loose. This town has had a tough year.

PHILLIPS:  Let us be happy in what we are. Because we are big and we are strong. And we have an awesome school here. I graduated from here thirty plus years ago and I wouldn't work here if I didn't love it here. You know? And my youngest child is here now as a freshman and I want it to be positive, I want everything to be positive. So if we can just put the Jack Sawyer thing back last year and leave it there. That's what I want to do.

KECK: Fair Haven Union High School is all about sports, and Slaters fans are passionate. As I stand watching them on this Friday night, I think back to something Scott Alkinburg told me. Scott was Fair Haven Union's school resource officer until recently. He's the one Jack Sawyer told police he planned to shoot first.

Scott said football championships? Sports trophies? They're all well and good. But by avoiding a school shooting, Fair Haven Union High School won the biggest victory of all.


KECK: Jolted is reported and produced by Liam Elder-Connors and me, Nina Keck.

Since this our final episode, consider leaving us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts.  It'll help more people find us.

ELDER-CONNORS: We had additional reporting for this episode from our editor and project manager, Emily Corwin.

Sarah Ashworth is our Senior Editor.

Angela Evancie is VPR's Managing Editor for Podcasts.

John Van Hoesen is VPR's Chief Content Officer.

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.

Additional thanks to Hotel Vermont and West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

And finally, a big thanks to the VPR newsroom for their support.

Support for JOLTED comes from the VPR Innovation Fund, and from Primmer Piper Eggleston and Cramer, PC.

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