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Police and VUHS assess how safety procedures worked during gun threat

VERGENNES — Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said late last week the student who made a verbal threat to shoot a gun at Vergennes Union High School had not yet been cited for a crime.
Nor, Merkel said, was it absolutely certain the student would be charged after an investigation determined the threat “was not real,” according to a Vergennes Police Department press release last week.
Merkel said he would be meeting with the investigating officer on Friday and planned to speak with State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans later that day about the case after the deadline for this edition of the newspaper.
“Right now we have nothing. It’s still in the process,” Merkel said on Thursday.
According to Merkel’s press release, one VUHS student reported to authorities that in a Tuesday, Jan. 8, conversation another VUHS student said he would go to VUHS “during early morning hours and discharge a weapon at the school while it was in session.”
Because the student and witnesses are minors their names are not being released. VUHS educates students in grades 7 through 12.
Merkel on Thursday clarified that “we determined that” the student who made the threat had no access to weapons.
“The threat was made,” he said. “But then you have to look at whether the ability of the person who made the threat to carry it out was real, and it wasn’t.”
Merkel said to the best of investigators’ knowledge no specific threats were made to any individuals.
“The nature of the threat was to go to the school during the early-morning hours and discharge a weapon at the school while it was in session,” he said. “He didn’t say anything about anybody else, anybody in particular, any motive. That was it.”
While the legality of the situation might be murky, Merkel said his department’s duties were absolutely clear.
“Whenever someone makes a threat like that we take it very seriously. People need to understand whether it’s made in jest or whatever the case may be this is something that is not taken lightly in the current atmosphere, not only around the country but specifically in the state of Vermont,” he said.
“People should not be making threats or comments like that, whether it be in jest or otherwise. And if people do they’ve got to expect they’re going to get a lot of attention, and they’re going to get maybe legal consequences, too.”
Merkel said his department has collaborated with Addison Northwest School District (ANWSD) officials on school safety training and measures, and cooperation went smoothly last week.
“The bottom line is we want to make sure the safety and integrity of the schools are not compromised, and we work very well with the Addison Northwest School District to make sure that does not happen,” Merkel said.
ANWSD Superintendent Sheila Soule said in a Thursday email it was after consultation with city police that the school remained open and activities proceeded as usual on Tuesday and Wednesday, although city police will be stopping by more regularly, in the short term.
“We are extremely grateful for the efficient and thorough investigation conducted by the Vergennes Police Department. We have worked closely over the past two days to gather information and determine next steps in regard to student safety,” Soule wrote.
“With their support we were able to determinate that there was no immediate threat to student safety and feel confident in our decision to return to school and provide the comfort and familiarity that comes from routine, and try to reassure students and staff as best we can.”
Soule said she could not comment on any internal discipline or counseling the student is receiving or might receive.
“I cannot share any of the details regarding the ongoing follow up with the student due to Federal Privacy Laws — this includes providing any sort of specificity about consequences, return dates, or other student-specific information,” she wrote, adding, “There are policies and procedures in place that allow us to impose appropriate discipline for any violations of behavioral expectations.” 
Soule said ANWSD administrators and police agree that no new security measures are needed, especially in light of the many new security fixtures paid for by the bond approved in March by ANWSD residents and recent and ongoing training conducted at ANWSD schools.
“The upgrades to our facilities include new security cameras and door locking systems that allow us to monitor and control building access remotely. All these features are supportive of our efforts as we continue to prioritize student safety,” Soule wrote.
“Currently in our schools we are focused on providing additional training for our staff which included a ‘safety mindset’ training last fall and will continue with ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) trainings in February and later again in spring. These are in addition to regular drills conducted at each of our schools to prepare for school crises, and regular meetings with our school and district safety teams. This will continue to be a priority for some time.”
Merkel said he would conduct an overview, as is called for in the wake of an incident such as this.
“We’ve worked with the school, talked to them pretty consistently about safety measures,” Merkel said. “In this particular circumstance I think we did what we were supposed to do, and I think it went well. But that’s this circumstance. No circumstance is the same.”
And he praised the student for stepping forward, something that also proved to be critical in cases at Middlebury Union Middle School in December and at Fair Haven Union High School this past February.
“The other thing I would mention is again, as we’ve been saying all along, the old adage is if you see something or hear something, you say something,” Merkel said. “In this case that happened, and it worked well.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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