Recent Threats of Violence Renew Conversations About School Safety in Vermont | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Recent Threats of Violence Renew Conversations About School Safety in Vermont

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Published June 22, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated August 2, 2022 at 12:57 p.m.


SARAH CRONIN
  • Sarah Cronin

It was an unsettling finale to a tumultuous school year.

On May 17, Montpelier police received a call that a student from Montpelier High School had been talking about actions he would take if he were to "shoot up the school." The 18-year-old, who was known to keep a handgun and bullets in his car, also said he needed to upgrade to an AK-47 assault rifle for hunting.

Police determined that what he said didn't amount to an active threat, but they worked with the Washington County state's attorney to seek a special court order, known as an extreme risk protection order, that would enable them to confiscate the student's weapons. By that evening, the order was granted and officers seized two firearms and ammunition from the student's home.

Fifty miles away, a little more than two weeks later, the Orleans County Sheriff's Department was told that a Lake Region Union High School student had made multiple threats of violence on social media targeting the school and specific students. The student, a minor, was taken into custody overnight and charged the next day in family court with domestic terrorism and criminal threatening.

Finally, last week in Canaan, a judge approved an extreme risk protection order against Shane Gobeil, who told police that if there were transgender people or drag queens at his daughter's school, he would kill them, according to a Vermont State Police affidavit. Earlier that day, Gobeil was overheard at a New Hampshire grocery store making similar comments.

The three incidents capped a fraught school year in Vermont — marked by pandemic-related disruptions and deepening political polarization — that saw a record number of reported threats of school violence. Coming alongside the devastating mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, the recent cases refocus a spotlight on measures Vermont has taken to prevent gun violence in schools — and raise the question of whether more are needed.

Eighty-three school-related threats were reported to the Vermont Intelligence Center by law enforcement agencies and school districts during the past school year, according to data from the Vermont State Police. That figure is up from 55 in 2018-19 — the most recent academic year that wasn't upended by the COVID-19 pandemic — and more than triple the figure from this past academic year, when many schools relied on hybrid instruction.

The increase this year doesn't surprise Robert Evans, a state police veteran who serves as school safety liaison officer for the state. Evans, a consultant for Margolis Healy, which specializes in campus safety and security, works with the Vermont Agency of Education and the Department of Public Safety.

In the early days of COVID-19, Evans said, active shooter incidents in schools, workplaces and public places fell off nationally as people went into lockdown. But safety experts expected an uptick in worrisome behavior as students returned to school full time, bringing with them mental and emotional baggage stemming from the pandemic. That prediction, Evans said, has come true.

Few reports of school threats lead to an arrest or an extreme risk protection order, or ERPO, Evans said. A lot of the time, "this is an opportunity for us to get help for students that really need help," he said. "[Our] ultimate goal is to bring them back into the educational community safely."

In the cases in Montpelier, Orleans and Canaan, though, the alleged threats were deemed significant enough for legal action.

The trajectory of those cases might have looked much different had Vermont not passed a slate of gun-control laws four years ago. The historic legislation came on the heels of the mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in February 2018 and, days later, the unrelated arrest of an 18-year-old Vermonter, Jack Sawyer, who authorities said had plotted an elaborate armed assault on Fair Haven Union High School. The plan was thwarted after a fellow student tipped off authorities. Gov. Phil Scott, a Republican, said that incident convinced him to change his mind to support some new gun restrictions.

Scott signed a so-called red flag law that allows Vermont prosecutors to petition a judge for an ERPO, which is intended to prevent someone deemed a threat to themself or others from purchasing or possessing a firearm. In Vermont, an ERPO enables law enforcement officers to seize guns for up to six months — longer if the order is renewed. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have such laws, and most allow family or household members to submit an ERPO petition. In Vermont, only a prosecutor can do so.

Orders in response to reported school threats remain rare in Vermont. But in a community forum held on June 9 to discuss the Montpelier High School incident, Montpelier Police Chief Brian Peete said the situation was "the ideal application" of the ERPO law. Peete acknowledged that authorities lacked probable cause to arrest the student who had made the comments about guns, but said seizing his weapons was appropriate. The student, whose status at the school has not been made public, was also added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database, which prevents him from purchasing another firearm until the protection order expires.

"Within the span of a little over five hours, we were able to mitigate a potential threat," Peete said.

In Canaan, a police search of Gobeil's residence didn't turn up any weapons, but he told officers that he wanted to purchase an AK-47, according to the Vermont State Police affidavit. Though Gobeil, 36, had a 2015 conviction for second-degree assault in New Hampshire, officials determined he was still eligible to purchase a firearm.

Essex County State's Attorney Vincent Illuzzi confirmed that the Canaan schools have transgender students and was granted an ERPO against Gobeil during an emergency hearing. Canaan canceled its final two days of school because of the incident.

Gobeil's ERPO was extended to six months during a hearing on June 15. He also faces misdemeanor harassment charges in New Hampshire, stemming from comments made at the grocery store. According to New Hampshire court documents, Gobeil had been issued a no-trespass notice by the Canaan school district on June 7 after confronting students, parents and staff for wearing face masks on multiple occasions.

Illuzzi, who has been a state's attorney since 1999, said Gobeil's case marks the first time he has sought an ERPO.

"I didn't even know there were forms available," Illuzzi said.

In Orleans, the Lake Region Union High School student likely would have faced different consequences had the state's domestic terrorism laws not been updated in 2018, months before Scott signed the gun-control package. After state senators heard Fair Haven students testify following the threat against their school, lawmakers moved to expand the definition of domestic terrorism to include situations in which someone takes "substantial steps" that show they intend to kill multiple people.

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Dick Sears (D-Bennington) told Vermont Public Radio at the time that he believed an expansion of the law would help hold more people accountable.

Because the Orleans student is a minor, the case is being handled in family court and lawyers are barred from discussing it publicly, according to Orleans County State's Attorney Jennifer Barrett, the prosecutor. But Barrett did confirm to Seven Days that no ERPO had been filed.

In an emailed statement on June 3, a day after the student was arrested, Barrett said she was pursuing the domestic terrorism charge because her office "will not tolerate threats made to the schools and students within this county." The Orleans incident appears to be the first time a Vermont student has been charged with the crime.

A task force convened in 2019 following the Fair Haven plot developed a list of 38 recommendations for preventing violence in schools and communities. The proposal mostly avoided discussion of gun control and instead recommended more funding for mental health services and suicide prevention, expanded social and emotional learning programs in schools, and school district training in how to assess threats.

A school threat tip line, one of the recommended safeguards, was established nine months ago. Evans, who was on the task force, said it might be time to dust off the report and consider implementing other measures.

One recommendation that is of special interest to state leaders is a broad implementation of behavioral threat assessment, in which school counselors, administrators and teachers discuss worrisome behavior to determine whether they represent a credible threat of violence. Some school districts use the technique, and around 300 Vermont school employees have gone through threat-assessment training. The state plans to offer more sessions in the late summer or early fall. Evans said the Vermont Agency of Education is talking about making the training mandatory.

Some in Vermont say that even after the package of laws Scott signed in 2018, more needs to be done. Among them is student activist Maddie Ahmadi, a rising senior at Essex High School. She is on the national advisory board of Students Demand Action, a group founded by the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety following the Parkland shooting.

The day after the Uvalde tragedy, Ahmadi organized a school walkout to grieve for the 19 students and two teachers who were killed and to call for changes, including to state and federal law.

Earlier this year, Scott declined to completely close the "Charleston loophole," which enables people to purchase firearms when background checks take too long to complete. Further, Vermont is the only New England state without a secure-storage law for firearms. Ahmadi said that indicates Vermont could do more.

Ahmadi welcomes summer and is also relieved to have a respite from school, where she said she and fellow students could face a threat on any given day.

That, she said, is just "the sad reality" for students today.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Prepared for the Worst?"