Brandon police take steps at OV after Fair Haven threat

FAIR HAVEN/BRANDON — A link to the school shooting threat that originated in Fair Haven last week prompted Brandon police to take action at Otter Valley Union High School. In the end, though, authorities said no one in Brandon was in immediate danger from the threat.
With an eerie echo of the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting on Feb. 14, Vermont State Police on Feb. 15 arrested 18-year-old Jack Sawyer of Poultney for allegedly making threats and plans to commit a mass shooting at Fair Haven Union High School.
That information hit even closer to home the previous day. That’s when Fair Haven police notified Brandon police that there was an “unsubstantiated threat” directed toward FHUHS; the Otter Valley Union High School boys’ basketball team was due to host Fair Haven for a game that night.
“We were in contact with Fair Haven about a vague threat reported to them,” Brandon Police Chief Chris Brickell said in an interview Thursday. “The threat was toward Fair Haven high school and the complainant also said the person bought a firearm the day before. They also supplied the Fair Haven police with the cell phone number of the subject.”
The notice of the threat came to Brandon police after the game had begun at OV. Brickell said he had already sent an additional officer to OV to bolster the school resource officer in light of the day’s tragic mass shooting in Florida. Based on the threat received from Fair Haven police, Brickell said the Brandon officers proceeded to implement a “lock out” procedure at the OV.
“We locked all of the doors except the front entrance,” the chief said. “We checked the perimeter of the school, the buses, the vehicles, with the help of the school and the custodial staff.”
He said officers had a photo of Sawyer, and his cell phone was being pinged as to his location throughout the evening. Police monitored the front entrance at OV for people coming in and going out.
“Everything we were doing was strictly precautionary,” Brickell said. “The subject’s whereabouts were monitored while the game was going on. Fair Haven police found that he was in Poultney and they were on that.”
Brickell was in communication with Rutland Northeast Superintendent Jeanne Collins throughout the evening.
“The situation was resolved just before the end of the game, and everyone exited safely,” Collins said Thursday. “We executed a lockout again today and the School Resource Officer is again focusing on the front of the school. Because of the events in Florida, we are just aware that there is a heightened sense of alarm, but no actual threat.”
Indeed, the unsubstantiated threat became substantiated when Sawyer was arrested the next day and charged with attempted aggravated murder, attempted first degree murder, and attempted aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Sawyer pleaded not guilty at his arraignment Friday in Rutland Superior Court, Criminal Division. He is being held without bail.
According Vermont State and Fair Haven police, the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead was unrelated to Sawyer’s alleged plans, which he supposedly mentioned in a text to a female acquaintance. It was she who informed the Fair Haven police of Sawyer’s alleged plan.
Rutland County State’s Attorney Rose Kennedy said that people should “trust (their) gut” when deciding when to share troubling information about someone with authorities.
Brickell agreed.
“These were good conclusions that people were coming to and putting two and two together,” he said.
Fair Haven Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell, assured parents that the threat had passed, but said that while the school was on February break this week, extra counselors would be available at FHUHS. A community forum was also being planned.
Collins herself sent a letter out to RNeSU parents last Thursday, apprising them of the measures taken to ensure public and school safety the night before.
“I understand the high level of anxiety that exists today and hope this update on our protocols is helpful,” she wrote.
Collins went on to explain the lock out procedure, adding that over the last two years, the district has focused on A.L.I.C.E. training — which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate — at each school.
“This approach gives students and staff more decision-making authority in response to an incident,” Collins said. “We practice these drills monthly so our students become aware of the different ways to react in situations.”
Brickell was asked about his department’s policies if a student was considered a possible threat to school safety.
“I believe that if the school had concerns about a student in that context, they would let us know,” he said. “If there is any anticipated threat, I have no doubt they would let us know.”
Collins agreed.
“We work closely with the police and if there is a threat or potential threat, we call them,” she said. “Neshobe School and OV use Brandon police, Lothrop works with Pittsford police, and the other schools work with the state police. We have been working on increasing and building on our relationships with local law enforcement and first responders.”
Collins also said that district protocols include monitoring students for the need for emotional support and maintaining strong connections with the mental health agencies in Rutland and Addison counties.
Brickell recalled only one student threat to OV since he became police chief in 2007.
“It was when Nancy Robinson was the principal,” he said. “There was a student they were concerned about. We met with him and the family, and Nancy had a good relationship with that student, and I think that made a huge difference.”
The chief added that the department has protocols in place to deal with school shooting threats, and that officers regularly participate in training exercises to that end. An A.L.I.C.E. exercise last year was funded by the federal Department of Homeland Security and included law enforcement and custodial staff.
“It was good and gets everyone involved to understand the roles everyone else has to play,” Brickell said. “I understood how OV’s rollout happens with students, and how they do parental notification. We came away from that with better plans.”
While it may be comforting to know that the police and school officials have plans in place to deal with an active shooter, it’s also a sobering commentary on the current socio-political landscape in the United States, which leads the world in schools shootings.
“We want school to be an environment where we don’t have to think about these things, but here we are,” Brickell said. “It’s unfortunate.”
In her letter to parents, Collins said the most important aspect of preventing a school shooting here is information.
“Hearing from parents or students about rumors or concerns can be very helpful in preventing an incident from occurring,” Collins wrote. “I urge you to notify me or your school principal if you have any concerns or have heard of anything that may lead to an unsafe situation.”
She also said that parents can go to the RNeSU website at rnesu.org and use the “Let’s Talk” button on any school website to ask questions or share information, especially beyond school hours.
“Together, we can work to keep our students and community safe,” Collins wrote. “We encourage our students to share with faculty and staff when they hear something that may be unsafe or have a concern. Please talk with your children and reinforce the message: If you see something, say something.”

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