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School Threats Draw More Scrutiny, Though Few Result In Criminal Charges

Lyndon Institute. In January, a 16-year reportedly made threats towards Lyndon Institute. Police investigated and at this time no criminal charges are filed.
Liam Elder-Connors
Lyndon Institute. In January, a 16-year reportedly made threats towards Lyndon Institute. Police investigated and at this time no criminal charges are filed.

The Vermont State Police started tracking school threats after an averted school shooting in Fair Haven last year. Since August 2018, 35 threats have been reported across the state.

That’s more than one school threat a week since the beginning of the academic year. Of those reported, VPR has learned that only 10 resulted in prosecutors filing charges.

These threats put law enforcement in a tricky spot — they’re scary both for students and the community, but most cases don’t rise to the level of a crime.

Take for example a recent situation at Lyndon Institute — an independent high school in the Northeast Kingdom

In late-January, Lyndonville police Chief Jack Harris learned a 16-year old student had been making unsettling comments like saying “the problem with school shootings is there aren’t enough of them.”

Harris said the student also wore a concerning Halloween costume.

“During a costume assembly he went on stage wearing a large calendar with a red arrow pointing to the date January 31,” Harris said. “A teacher and a couple other people commented that in the crowd before going on stage he was saying it was a date that would change Lyndon Institute's history forever.”

Lyndonville Police Chief Jack Harris.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
Lyndonville Police Chief Jack Harris. In late January, Harris learned a student was making unsettling comments about Lyndon Institute and so Harris applied a court order to confiscate the student's weapons.

Harris quickly tapped a new law implemented after the averted school shooting in Fair Haven. He applied for an extreme risk protection order, which would allow the police to confiscate the student's weapons.

Police picked up the student and searched his house, where they learned that his dad had already taken the guns away. Police seized the student’s phone and computer.

According to Harris, a state forensic team is checking those devices to see if they contain evidence of a plan to attack the school.

At this time, what happened in Lyndon was not crime, according to Caledonia County State’s Attorney Lisa Warren.

“Certainty we take threats seriously when they’re made, balancing them against free speech,” Warren said during an interview in her office. “But I think … people in the situations where the alleged conduct happened felt good that we took the measure we did to file for the extreme risk protection order.

About two weeks later, at the opposite end of the state in Brattleboro, police and prosecutors faced a similar situation.

According to Brattleboro Police Captain Mark Carignan, a student “explicitly said he was going to injure people” at the high school. Police quickly launched an investigation.

“ [We] went to his residence, contacted him, contacted his guardians and were able to determine he does not have firearms,” Carignan said.

Carignan said the county prosecutor decided —like in Lyndon —there wasn’t enough evidence for criminal charges.

“There are unfortunately things like this that happen, where threatening statements or dangerous statements are made but if they don’t satisfy the statute, they don’t satisfy the statute and charges can’t be brought,” he said.

Windam County State’s Attorney Tracy Shriver declined to discuss the decision not to bring charges. But she said not every unsettling comment about a school threat should result in a criminal case.

“Teenagers say stupid things, teenagers say threatening things, teenagers say things to express their anger and frustration,” Shriver said. “If there were criminal charges that resulted out of all those thing,s I would be much more busy than I already am.”

Since the state has been tracking school threats for less than a year, it’s impossible to know if 35 reported threats represent a growing trend.

But Marshall Pahl, an attorney who handles juvenile cases in the Defender General’s office, said anecdotally he hasn’t seen a significant increase in cases.

“To me all I know is that I’m not getting a lot more calls from attorneys who are being assigned to these cases and have questions about them than I have in the past,” Pahl said. “So I don’t see any sign of an uptick, but that’s not really evidence of anything that’s just sort of what I see.”

However, there is more scrutiny of potential school threats. Shriver says she’s paying more attention.

“Five years ago I would not have every school resource officer tell me when he or she investigated some threatening comments by a student,” Shriver said. “But in the last 12 months I’ve made it very clear to my police officers that I do want to know.”

Lyndon Institute's campus. The school has been criticized for not saying publicly if the student who allegedly made threats still goes there.
Credit Liam Elder-Connors / VPR
Lyndon Institute's campus. The school has been criticized for not saying publicly if the student who allegedly made threats still goes there.

Back at Lyndon Institute, director of campus safety TJ Tanner said that national attention on school shootings has added pressure to keep the community informed when potential threats arise — even if they don’t result in charges.

An editorial in the local paper criticized Lyndon Institute for not telling the community if the student was still enrolled. But still, school officials say they can’t talk about students, though police say they took out a ‘no-trespass order’ against the 16-year-old.

“It's just a very difficult thing to do because there are certain things that parents want to hear and they want to know and you just can't tell them because you have to protect every individual student's rights as well,” Tanner said.

Harris and others in law enforcement say that even if their investigations don’t result in criminal charges, their involvement can still help. Some of the cases result in referrals to mental health treatment.

In fact, Harris said the last time he saw the student who reportedly made the threat, he was waiting for a bed at mental health facility.

“For me to swing and say — ‘OK you know what, you need to go to court and let the court deal with it, well, that's passing the buck. That's not what we're here to do,” Harris said. “We're here to help people, we’re here to address situations and if that means I need to call in someone who knows better than me, I’m not too proud to do it.”

Meanwhile, the prosecutor said if new evidence comes out in the Lyndon case, she will consider filing criminal charges.

Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.
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