Emails Show Burlington Educators Were Surprised, Too, by Mock Shooting That Terrified Students | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Emails Show Burlington Educators Were Surprised, Too, by Mock Shooting That Terrified Students

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Published June 12, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


Burlington Police Department - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Burlington Police Department

It sounded almost too far-fetched to be true: Burlington cops terrifying high schoolers by staging a fake shooting. But that's exactly what happened last week at the city police station, where a "masked gunman" pretended to open fire in a classroom full of unsuspecting teens.

The June 5 demonstration made national news and left the adults in charge pointing fingers over who was to blame for the presentation gone wrong. The Burlington Police Department and the Burlington School District gave somewhat conflicting accounts of how the incident unfolded. While the two sides made peace by last Friday, their joint apology satisfied few.

Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak told Seven Days that she was disappointed that the police department would think a mock shooting was appropriate. But she also made clear that Chief Jon Murad, whom Mulvaney-Stanak reappointed to a yearlong term last week, will stay in his role.

The chief didn't attend Monday's city council meeting. But his name came up during public comment, when several Burlington residents expressed their disappointment about what had happened.

"There is a crisis of trust with our police department, and this incident is one more example of how that has developed," Rep. Troy Headrick (P/D-Burlington) said. "At some point, we need to have a very honest conversation that we don't have leadership at the helm of BPD who has the capacity for good decision making."

The demonstration was part of a forensics class offered through Burlington High School's annual year-end studies program. Twenty or so students were told that they would tour the police department and see a presentation on how detectives solve crimes.

Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak

Two of them who spoke to Seven Days on the condition of anonymity said the cops made repeated references throughout the day to how Burlington was experiencing a wave of shootings and other gun-related crimes.

Students were facing the front of the room listening to a detective speak when they heard screams behind them. Two women ran in, the students said, followed by a man wearing a ski mask and holding a gun. Gunshot sounds rang out.

One of the students said she dove to the floor. The other said she scrambled to find her phone so that she could text her mother.

"I'm shaking and crying because I'm like, Oh, my god, I'm gonna get shot," she said. "It felt so real."

The students said they realized it was fake only after noticing that the cops had done nothing to stop the pretend shooter. Parents told Seven Days afterward that they felt the demonstration played on the anxieties of students who have grown up fearing somebody could open fire at their school.

"I'm baffled," said one mother, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her daughter's identity. "It is a very real threat to kids these days to have a school shooting. It's something they worry about."

Burlington police initially apologized to any students "who were upset" by the demonstration and appeared to cast blame on the school district. The statement quoted excerpts of emails showing that teachers had approved of the demonstration ahead of time and agreed to let parents and students know.

The simulation would involve "fake firearms in a mock shooting," the department wrote in an email on May 23. "Do you think that sort of incident would be ok for your group of students? It is about as real life as you can get, and is certainly exactly the sort of thing we deal with most frequently."

"I think these students will be fine with this simulation," school staff responded. "We will give a heads up to parents and students. They can make a choice not to watch."

The full email thread, obtained by Seven Days through a public records request, reveals a clearer picture of the discussions.

It shows that on May 24, a day after the department floated the idea of a mock shooting, a police staffer emailed the teachers to say the content of the presentation would depend on how many cops were available.

The mock shooting never came up again, the emails show. Instead, on June 3, two days before the class, a police staffer shared the following schedule: "My plan is to give a presentation about what we do, sprinkle in the Rita Curran case, and then have a scenario where they work with us to document and collect evidence based on the things we just went over," the email read, referring to a cold case that detectives solved last year.

"We will likely have some detectives there to help do a witness interview type situation as well," the email continued. "Sound ok?"

In the hours after the incident, school officials tried to figure out what happened. Emails show that one of the teachers told the high school's interim principal that police had suggested a "re-enactment involving guns and gunfire" but never said it would be unannounced.

"This seemed like it was just spitballing at the time," one of the teachers wrote. That's why, when the department's plan for the day did not mention the mock shooting, the teachers thought it had been called off. "We never mentioned it to students or families based on that description," the teacher wrote.

In an email to parents, the teachers said the officers told them that they'd previously used the lesson with college students and adults and that they wanted the event to be "as realistic as possible."

"The detectives did apologize after they realized that the reenactment did not translate well to high school students," the teachers wrote.

Chief Jon Murad - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Chief Jon Murad

The story, which Seven Days broke online last Thursday, quickly spread, fueling headlines in the New York Times, CNN and NBC News. "As School Shootings Abound, Vermont Police Terrify Kids With a Fake One," read a New Republic headline.

The decision to stage a realistic shooting for students was hard to fathom, even in a city familiar with bewildering police conduct. The department made national news in 2019, too, when former police chief Brandon del Pozo resigned after he was caught using an anonymous social media account to harass a critic.

Last week, del Pozo was asked on the social media platform X about the latest incident involving his former department. He responded with an emoji of a zipped mouth.

In a joint statement last Friday, Chief Murad and Burlington School District superintendent Tom Flanagan said they were "truly sorry" about the demonstration. They said it stemmed from a "breakdown in communication between two groups trying to work together to create a meaningful experience for students."

"Neither of us want any repeat of anything like this moving forward," they wrote.

The school district offered counseling services and said it, along with the police department, held a "restorative circle" for students and staff to "process and talk about events of the day." They declined to detail that experience. "What is said in the circle stays in the circle," the statement said.

One mother who spoke to Seven Days said the official response to the incident has only added to her frustration.

The initial statement from the police seemed to deflect blame onto students for being upset, the mother said, leading her daughter to wonder whether she had blown the incident out of proportion. The joint statement, meanwhile, provided no insight into how basic communication between the cops and teachers broke down, the mother said, adding, "I still don't understand what happened here."

The mother, who is considering filing a formal complaint against the police department, doesn't think that her daughter will be "scarred for life" by the incident. But she said the traumatic experience seems to be lingering in subtle ways.

The teenager has lost interest in watching TV shows such as "CSI" and "NCIS" that first piqued her interest in the forensics class, the mother said. And the cops' repeated references to crime in Burlington have made her wary of spending time downtown; the young woman no longer trusts that police will keep her safe.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Staged Fright | Emails show Burlington educators were surprised, too, by mock shooting that terrified students"

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