By COLIN FLANDERS, MICHAELA HALNON & COURTNEY LAMDIN
with additional reporting by KAYLEE SULLIVAN
Peter Farrell had a ritual after every school shooting.
It was born in 2006, after an event most people here need no reminder of: A lone gunman killed a teacher at Essex Elementary School, back when such a scenario felt rare, before so many schools became places known for all the wrong reasons.
After becoming principal at Essex Elementary, Farrell saw teachers sob after Sandy Hook from their empathy with the devastation and the reminder of that day. That was back when he’d check in immediately after the news broke. Now, it’s not so immediate.
“It’s probably the way the entire country is feeling,” Farrell said. “‘Oh, another one.’ How awful is that? That we have become … somewhat numbed to the fact that this happens on a routine basis.”
While local schools have avoided another incident like that, the threat of violence and its impact remains. It surfaces in the frantic texts to children during the lockdown at Essex High School. Or the concerns of returning to school after a hoax last month made EHS one of over 700 schools to see threats in the wake of the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Dozens of interviews conducted in Colchester, Milton and Essex over the past month confirm the threat of a school shooting occupies a permanent space in the education community. Tucked between thoughts of soccer practice and an upcoming economics test is the ever-present notion that it could happen here.
Days after Parkland, a dad in Milton purchased a bulletproof backpack for his 10-year-old daughter. A sophomore at Colchester High School made an emergency evacuation plan in her free time. A school board member in Essex mulled over the notion of an anonymous tip box.
All this, despite the statistical reality that their school will likely never experience a massacre like in Parkland. Rational thoughts take a back seat, though, when the principal instructs students to “clear the halls” over the loudspeaker.
“Every time something like that happens now, I’m scared,” said Maddie Laquerre, a CHS sophomore.
“We shouldn’t have to be scared going to school.”
Parkland has become the epicenter of a renewed push for gun control, its students thrust into activism while inspiring students across the country, including here in Chittenden County. The survivors have used social media to demand action, calling for new legislation and blasting companies that offer discounts to members of the National Rifle Association.
For high-schoolers locally, they also embody the belief that it can happen to anyone.
“That’s probably why there’s so much vehement reaction, especially among the students,” EHS senior Nick Hanna said. “Because it’s so easy to visualize us or our friends on the floor in a puddle of blood.”
After a snow day delayed planned walkouts across the state, thousands of Vermont students left class at 10 a.m. on March 15 to show solidarity with their peers in Parkland.
Some ceremonies, like that in Essex, echoed the call for action amid a vigil for the victims. Students filled the snow-covered bleachers outside the school, a few carrying signs, including one that read: “I am not a target.”
“We are not going to stop until we get what we want,” student organizer Amelia Duffy said in between minutes of silence for each of the victim. “We will be the change we want to see.”
In Colchester, 17 students read a short speech on behalf of a victim who shared their personality traits or interests. Each placed an orange carnation at the front of the stage as pictures of the deceased flashed behind them.
“We’re so often, as a state, able to detach because we’re so small and far away from everything that’s happening,” student organizer Gabbi Berthiaume said. “We thought by making it more personal, it would be more impactful for people to watch.”
Kaity Mazza, also a walk-out organizer, said they intentionally avoided any mention of specific policy or political party in an attempt to keep the event as inclusive as possible. That doesn’t mean they shied away from the political implications of their message. The trio planned to send videos and transcripts from their walk-out to legislators in Montpelier.
In Milton, a screen projected images of the victims. After each slide, student presenter Molly Gary vowed, “We will remember,” and the audience answered in chorus.
Essex students took a more political stance. They voiced a frustration at some of the inaction, responding to how a divisive issue like gun control can muddy what they feel is a common-sense discussion, and emphasized their own power.
“I fear that adults don’t completely understand this issue,” student organizer Ashel Adiang-Dowling said. “This is not about being a Democrat or Republican or a member of the NRA or Greenpeace. This is about kids being killed in our classrooms.”
Linda Cloutier-Namdar, an EHS English teacher, said that’s a widespread sentiment in the wake of Parkland: “There is a lot of student indignation about how could you — the collective adults around us — how could you all let this happen?”
To some, that frustration feels justified.
“We’ve let that America come into being,” EHS teacher Adam Weiss said. “This is the America we turned the other cheek to.”
THE CALL FOR ACTION
Gov. Phil Scott shifted his stance on gun control last month after reading the arrest affidavit for 18-year-old Jack Sawyer, who was allegedly preparing to carry out a shooting at Fair Haven Union High School. Sawyer’s plan was discovered just two days after the Parkland massacre.
The state senate has since passed a bill that would raise the legal age to buy firearms to 21 and require universal background checks. Similar legislation has been proposed in the House, where lawmakers approved a bill allowing police to remove firearms from people who threaten violence.
Those measures drew outrage from a majority of speakers at Milton’s gun control forum earlier this month. Many repeated refrains that surface in gun control debates nationwide.
David Graham of Grand Isle said legislators should “consider the lack of discipline and parenting at home.” He suggested violent television and video games could also be to blame.
Milton High School student Caitlyn Lamotte disagreed, saying citizens of every country in the world experience mental illness, “but no country has school shootings like we do.”
She begged lawmakers to institute gun control measures and dismissed the idea that arming staff would protect students since the Parkland school police officer didn’t attempt to take down the shooter.
“It won’t work when I’m murdered walking into school because some kid was able to get an AR-15,” Lamotte said. “The fact that you guys value my life below a gun is insane.”
Shifting that political discourse to the classroom is tricky but often necessary, several Essex educators agreed. Cloutier-Namdar said she readily adapted her planned curriculum after a simple question spurred a 45-minute classroom conversation the day after the Parkland shooting.
“Some of the time has been spent in class in ways that I would not have anticipated a month ago,” Cloutier-Namdar said. “If people [ignore] it, they’re not going to feel better. They’re just going to feel more misunderstood.”
Essex Spanish teacher Reina Guarnaccia said her students even broached specific policy suggestions in class, like President Donald Trump’s recommendation that some teachers should be armed. She shared her concerns about the proposal with the kids, too. “A classroom is a microcosm of all the opinions across our country,” she said. “It’s really interesting to hear them share their thoughts. It’s the whole spectrum — some of them really want to see that, others felt like ‘No way.’”
Several EHS students said they were grateful for the opportunity to talk things out with adults during their school day. Still, Adiang-Dowling recalled a time when information shared by a teacher caused tension. “One of my teachers openly admitted that his father was a lifelong member of the NRA, and the entire class just went silent,” she said.
Caitlin Richardson, a Colchester sophomore, said her teachers didn’t host an emotional debriefing the day after a threat at CHS, though the topic was like an elephant in the room. She approached a trusted instructor outside regular class time to discuss her feelings, instead.
Colchester superintendent Amy Minor said that was in line with district policy. She likened the topic to a presidential election and said she requires her staff to remain politically neutral while teaching, even when students press for opinions.
“When they are standing in front of a classroom of students, their job is to teach the curriculum,” Minor said. But CHS sophomore Tracy Wear said they would like more guidance — and to be treated with more maturity — when it comes to school safety discussions.
“Teaching us to recognize situations and what’s happening, how to analyze, how to think about them, that will help us going forward,” Wear said. “Treat us like adults.”
“By 2020, we’ll be able to vote, too, in the presidential election,” Richardson added. “We’re going to eventually have to learn how to understand it.”
Every school has a safety plan, but in Milton, officials have taken the typical lockdown drills a step further.
Since October 2016, Milton Town School District has implemented ALICE, a nationwide program that gives strategies to stay safe in an active shooter situation. The name is an acronym for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate. Milton student resource officer Cpl. Scott Philbrook has rolled out the curriculum to the adults in the two school buildings and next plans to instruct students on the method: ALICE suggests they throw books, chairs, laptops and any other object to impede the shooter.
At a school safety forum on February 22 – three days after parents first heard of an unspecified threat via social media – Philbrook explained to the room full of parents that countering is a choice and last resort.
In a follow-up interview, Philbrook acknowledged countering is “the scary part” and said he’ll emphasize kids should listen to their teachers and follow instructions.
“That’s the part they need to know,” he said. “It’s the adults that are making the bigger decisions.”
Colchester Police Lt. Doug Allen said he’s considered this point recently in training teachers in a protocol similar to ALICE. He said Colchester PD has worked with the district on lockdowns since Columbine.
“Something completely foreign to a teacher is for me to say to them, ‘Could you use force … to protect yourself or your kids?’” Allen said, adding it’s OK if teachers say no. “It’s a mindset. There’s no doubt that we recognize that there are associated nightmares that go along with that.”
Colchester superintendent Minor acknowledged the thought of teachers potentially sacrificing themselves for their students is uncomfortable but must be considered.
“It’s a reality of society. It doesn’t matter how they feel,” she said. “The jobs of schools aren’t going to change, so we then support each individual teacher with what their needs are.”
In Milton, Philbrook said some teachers are wary of their responsibility during an active shooting. “They don’t get into education with the thought of having to protect students from an armed intruder,” he said. “That’s not what they signed up to do.”
He thinks the more teachers drill, the more comfortable they’ll be with their options. Going through the motions has raised good questions and identified weak spots, like doors that don’t lock, which are then fortified, Philbrook said.
At the school safety meeting, Milton parents questioned whether more could be done. Some asked if bulletproof glass could be installed in the windows, while others stressed someone should watch the school cameras at all times. They asked for another SRO, too.
The notion of metal detectors has been raised in all three districts. Some students called the devices excessive and said they would make their school feel like a jail. Others said they’d be great, if only to stop the kids who accidentally bring hunting knives to school.
Brian Donahue, Essex Westford School District’s chief operating officer, wondered if these measures are really doing something – or just creating more anxiety.
Both are possible, says Paul Foxman, a 40-year psychologist and founder of the Vermont Center for Anxiety Care in Burlington.
“There’s two sides,” Foxman said. “The safety measures are probably going a long way to keeping us safe, and at the time, we’re creating anxiety.”
Milton parent Nicole Claypool said since Parkland, her 10-year-old son, Conner, has had higher than normal anxiety, specifically surrounding safety drills. The day after the school safety meeting, Philbrook reviewed the drills with Conner, as he often does with students experiencing heightened stress.
Olivia Couillard, a sophomore at MHS, said she has anxiety every day at school. While she takes in the teacher’s lesson, she’s also considering her exit plan and says more stringent safety measures would calm her.
Donahue said he’d rather invest in more social workers for every school.
“Do we build bigger walls, or do we start taking them down and stop stigmatizing mental health? Do we stop under-resourcing our community health care basis?” he asked. “As we throw these kids away from our society, they’re not going anywhere … people are in crisis.”
Days after Sawyer, the Fair Haven student, was arrested, Essex High School students alerted police to a troubling social media post that allegedly threatened the school. While it was eventually deemed a hoax, school administrators commended the students for speaking up.
“We’re watching out for one another,” Donahue said. “It’s going to make us a safer community, because we know what we need to know. And it’s going to take us into that position of control: The person that wants to light the fire of fear isn’t going to win because they’re not going to stay anonymous.”
But Donahue readily concedes unchecked vigilance could ostracize students with traits often attributed to shooters: being quiet, disengaged or simply different from the rest.
A few students recalled rumors circling EHS in the days after Parkland, their peers naming who they suspected could carry out a deadly act on campus. One Colchester student said she considers that whenever she meets a new classmate.
Some parents have taken matters into their own hands.
Jason Smiley was on his lunch break when he received an email from the Milton administration on February 19, five days after Parkland. Buried in the fifth paragraph of her six-graf message, superintendent Ann Bradshaw informed parents someone had posted a threatening note about the middle school on social media. That was all she could share, she wrote, due to privacy concerns.
Smiley, however, had read enough to convince himself he needed to do something to protect his 10-year-old daughter, Hannah. He clicked onto Amazon.com and ordered the Guard Dog Security ProShield 2, a bulletproof backpack verified by the National Institute of Justice. There were two color options. He chose pink.
With the weighty bag in his hands, Smiley wondered if the backpack would do any good. Many Milton classrooms require kids to leave their backpacks outside, hung on the wall. And it doesn’t protect against assault rifle rounds, the weapon of choice in recent mass shootings. He’s not even sure if it will fit all her books.
But it’s something.
“Even if she only has this backpack for a little while, going to and from school or when we’re traveling, maybe it’s just one more thing [to protect her],” he said.
School psychologists say it’s important to contextualize the likelihood of being shot at school. That has been difficult, however, since data on school violence is historically unreliable. A national newspaper covering education issues, EdWeek, recently started to track shootings on K-12 properties that result in injury or death. So far, it reports nine school shootings have killed 21 people, including 17 at Parkland.
Teenagers are much more likely to die in a car crash, said Dylan McNamara, a co-director of student support services at EWSD. But confronting fear with statistics is easier said than done.
Just ask Claypool, the Milton mother whose son has had nightmares since Parkland. Or Guarnaccia, the Spanish teacher who thinks about the “looming possibility” of a violent event almost every day on her way to work.
“I’ve heard a lot of kids echo the fact that they feel a little more uncomfortable than they think they should,” Guarnaccia said. “They’ve heard from the adults that we’re safe and that we don’t need to worry, but they still don’t feel safe, and they still worry, because this does happen so frequently, and we do feel exposed.
“It just feels like it’s always getting closer,” she later added.
Foxman, the Burlington-based psychologist, said unprecedented access to media makes a shooting in Florida or a bombing in Boston “feel like it’s just around the corner,” contributing to an overall feeling that people are less safe than they once were.
He said that’s one reason mental health experts are seeing anxiety rates rise to an “epidemic” level. The National Institute of Mental Health reports over 30 percent of adults experience some type of anxiety disorder in their lives.
“The formula for anxiety is ambiguity, uncertainty and unpredictability,” Foxman said. “That’s really the world we’re living in now.”
THE FADE OUT
Colchester resident Lisa Young was sent home early after a student leveled a violent threat against BFA-Fairfax last month. She’s a sixth-grade math teacher with two daughters in the Colchester School District. Her youngest, a second-grader at Union Memorial School, was puzzled to find her mom had deviated from the typical schedule. That morning, she had heard something on the school bus radio about a gun and kids being killed.
Knowing something was wrong, she started asking questions.
Young did her best to walk a careful line, reassuring her daughter that she was safe at UMS but reminding her to listen if adults at school say there is an emergency. Meanwhile, Young said her eldest daughter has shrugged off conversations about the national and local events, seemingly preferring to remain blissfully unaware. Asked which mindset she prefers, Young paused.
“I’d rather them be aware,” she said, thoughtfully. “As much as I don’t want to ruin the innocence.”
Across town at Porters Point School, resident Jana Sbardellati learned her second-grade daughter’s musical was canceled due to the CHS threat. She suddenly felt the urge to collect her from school and sent an email to administrators, asking, “What are you telling the kids?”
“I wasn’t ready for that,” Sbardellati said. “I wanted her to hear it in the right way.”
Both Young and Sbardellati are happy to have kids that handle difficult topics with maturity. Still, Sbardellati wondered aloud whether she’s raising a daughter that will be hardened to the world. Claypool, too, has wrestled with what to tell her son in Milton.
“I try not to make him feel like it’s going to happen,” she said. “Maybe that’s the wrong way of approaching it, but I don’t want him to be afraid of going to school and for his life.”
CPD’s Allen credited the students in Parkland for keeping this conversation in the forefront. He pointed to the inevitable cyclical nature of tragedy, though, and predicted the topic will eventually take a back seat — for better or worse.
“As Parkland fades, just as Sandy Hook faded, we get complacent,” Allen said. “You have doors that get left open, or you have somebody holding the door for somebody coming up. It’s striking that balance of not having a fortress mentality in our schools, which nobody wants to have, and keeping us safe.”
Laquerre, the Colchester sophomore, disagreed with Allen’s assessment. “This school shooting is different, though. It was a month ago, and we’re still talking about it,” she said. “Parkland is not another statistic; it has sparked a change.”
Either way, Cloutier-Namdar said she will continue to approach her students with optimism.
“That’s not my first thought of every day,” she said. “I try to be aware, but I’m coming in here with hope that I’m helping to pack their suitcase for their future, not that I’m giving them armor to keep them safe from anything that could happen.”