Bristol Police stationed in front of Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School Friday morning
Few students attended class at Mount Abraham Union Middle/High School in Bristol on Friday, and police stationed themselves outside the building after its principal announced that unidentified students had said they planned to bring weapons to school.
“This is a terrifying thought,” Principal Shannon Warden wrote in a letter emailed to families and posted on the high school’s Facebook page Thursday night. Many students and parents had notified administrators that they were “scared to come to school tomorrow,” Warden wrote, “and I can’t blame them!”
Warden said the threats at Mt. Abe were made after the school decided Thursday to ban students from wearing flags or banners in school. This week, the principal explained, students had draped flags over themselves like capes “in support of a person, cause or movement.”
A person familiar with the situation who asked not to be identified told Seven Days that some of the flags expressed support for former president Donald Trump. Pro-law enforcement Thin Blue Line and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags were also worn. As a counterprotest, other students brought LGBTQ, Transgender Pride and Black Lives Matter flags to school.
After meeting with students this week, Warden said that the administration initially decided the flags would be allowed as long as they didn’t "disrupt the learning environment at school.”
But on Thursday, Warden said, students walked through the school chanting, cheering, arguing and using “inappropriate and disrespectful language.” The display “created a major disruption in school” and made students feel “unwelcome, uncomfortable, mistreated and unsafe,” she said.
During a Thursday afternoon school assembly, Warden announced to Mt. Abe students that they would no longer be allowed to wear the flags, which she said was “in accordance with the Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines, that states clothing and other paraphernalia can only be worn in school if it does not disrupt the learning environment.” Warden said students wearing flags or banners to school would be asked to remove the items, which would be placed in the school office for their family to retrieve.
“We will not tolerate students engaging in uncivil discourse, showing disrespect to their peers based on their identity or beliefs, or gathering in large groups chanting things that are intimidating to others,” Warden wrote. She outlined some of the consequences students would face for this behavior, including calls home or to the police, therapy or counseling, restorative conversations, or the creation of a behavior plan.
In her email, Warden said that some students who were “frustrated” by the announcement that no flags would be allowed in school said they would wear more inappropriate gear the next day, chanted comments such as “Let’s Go, Brandon,” and said they would demonstrate their “second amendment rights tomorrow by bringing a weapon to school.”
“As the principal, I support all opinions, viewpoints, perspectives, and beliefs,” Warden wrote in her message. “I want us all to learn how to respectfully disagree, and talk about our differing views in a productive way. Sadly, we are not there yet and need to continue building our skills around communication, civil discourse and conversation, appropriate civil protest and demonstrations, and the sharing of one's beliefs and how to behave at school.”
In response to the principal’s message, several parents posted on Mount Abraham’s Facebook page that they would keep their children home from school on Friday because of safety concerns.
One of them, Melissa Perry, elaborated on her decision in a message to Seven Days on Friday. “I am fearful to send my child to school when he could potentially be in danger at any given time,” Perry wrote. “It’s frightening, maddening and plain unacceptable and all this craziness needs to stop.”
Mount Abe, which serves students in grades 7 through 12, does not have a police officer — known as a school resource office or SRO — stationed at the school. Bristol Police Chief Bruce Nason, whose truck was parked in front of the main entrance of the school Friday morning, said that members of his small department, which has just three officers, would be at Mt. Abe all day, with assistance from the Vermont State Police and the Vergennes Police Department.
Nason said that his department was following up on information from school personnel and members of the community that students were saying things in school and on social media about bringing weapons to school, but there was “no credible threat at this time.” He said that police had done many interviews with members of the school community starting Thursday and encouraged community members to contact police if they hear or see something concerning.
In her email, Warden encouraged parents to talk with their children “about how to have civil disagreements, show respect and empathy for others, not lean on social media to spread hurtful or hateful videos or pictures, demonstrate kindness everyday, and other ways to build or school community up — not tear it down.”
She said that parents should consider checking their child’s belongings before going to school “to make sure they don’t have a flag or paraphernalia that has symbols of hate.”
In a press release Friday evening, Mount Abraham Union School District Superintendent Patrick Reen said that though student attendance was low on Friday, "our faculty, staff, and students had a smooth day focusing on processing the events of yesterday, nurturing and building relationships, and talking through ways to move forward as a school community."
"While it was physically safe to bring students back into the building today and will be next week, it is clear to us that we have more work to do around the social, emotional, and mental health of our learning community," Reen's statement continued.
Next week, Mount Abe will operate on a normal schedule, but with "a continued police presence" and "additional social, emotional and mental health supports," he wrote.
School board chair Dawn Griswold did not respond to a request to comment. Board member Krista Siringo said many in the community “are eager to wrap around and support our kids and our entire school community and we hope to find ways to do that moving forward."
Mount Abraham Education Association spokesperson and high school social studies teacher Albert Zaccor shared a statement on behalf of the teacher’s union on Friday afternoon saying members support efforts to ensure a safe environment.
"The incidents this week at Mount Abraham, like the recent incidents at Bristol Elementary School (BES), however, are clear proof that our district must change, improve, and upgrade the support we provide to our neediest students,” the statement reads. It continues:
In both cases, the disruption, violence (or threats of violence) were the results of actions by a very small number of students who could not or would not regulate their behavior. We must seriously consider establishing, or in some cases reestablishing, programs that would allow us to provide separate intensive interventions to these students until they are capable of successfully participating in the wider learning community. Not only would this better support these students, but it would help ensure that the majority of the rest of our students have access to the safe and productive learning environment to which they are entitled.