Police, school officials avert Middlebury middle school shooting

“Once we determined this threat was specific, included specific targets, and was to be executed at a specific time and date, that raised the level (of concern). It was more than idle chatter from someone blowing off steam.” — Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley

MIDDLEBURY — Two 14-year-old Middlebury Union Middle School students have been indefinitely pulled from classes and face juvenile court citations after allegedly cooperating on a plan to shoot someone on campus.

Middlebury police are still investigating the case and are withholding the names of the two suspects because they are both juveniles. They are also not disclosing the names of the alleged target(s) in this case, nor the identity of a heroic student who tipped off authorities about the alleged shooting plot.

“You had one juvenile making a very specific threat, another juvenile who was going to provide the guns for him to carry it out,” Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley told the Independent on Tuesday. “There are relationship issues between all the people involved. We’re still getting through a lot of that.”

The youth who allegedly wanted to do the shooting has been placed in the custody of the Vermont Department for Children & Families and is receiving mental health counseling, while the juvenile who allegedly offered to supply the firearms is out of school and awaiting possible punishment once Middlebury police have wrapped their enquiry, which began Saturday.

It’s a case that for the first time brings an Addison County school into the agonizing conversation of school shootings, and it put into practice one of the key provisions of a much-debated gun safety law signed by Gov. Phil Scott this past spring. Middlebury police investigators successfully applied to a court official for an “extreme risk protection order” that allowed them to temporarily remove firearms from the home from which one of the youths was going to access guns to use in the planned shooting.

This is a potential tragedy fortunately averted, and a lesson for educators to invite more frank discussion from students about safety issues in and out of school.

“We really appreciate the quick and thorough work of the Middlebury Police Department in investigating this, and the board is confident in our schools’ ability to keep kids safe and make the right decisions to continue that,” said Addison Central School District Board Chairman Peter Conlon.

EVOLVING SITUATION

It was on Saturday, Dec. 15, that Middlebury police received a call from a person whom Hanley described as a “student at the school expressing concern over some conversations this student was privy to, where there was talk about using firearms to harm people in the school.”

Police, including School Resource Officer Connor Sousa, immediately launched a probe that lasted most of the weekend and spilled into Monday, during which they rounded up people with knowledge of the case for interviews and statements.

“By early Monday, we had identified two people, one of whom had made a specific threat against a specific person in the school, with a date and time on when this was going to happen,” Hanley said.

It was at that point that school and police officials knew they weren’t dealing with someone who was just having a bad day and doing some venting.

“Once we determined this threat was specific, included specific targets, and was to be executed at a specific time and date, that raised the level (of concern),” Hanley said. “It was more than idle chatter from someone blowing off steam.”

Police quickly got officials from the Vermont Department for Children & Families (DCF) and the Counseling Service of Addison County (CSAC) involved in the investigation.

After confirming the whereabouts and establishing short-term plans for both young suspects, police turned their attention to securing their alleged source of guns.

“We executed what is called an ‘extreme risk order’ (Monday) night at a relative’s house who had all these firearms,” Hanley said. “They were locked up (in the home), but one of these kids said he had access to them and could get them. So we took advantage of that extreme risk order statute that was passed. We needed to separate the person from their ability to do this.”

Hanley on Tuesday morning wasn’t sure of the exact inventory of the more than 10 confiscated weapons, but said they largely consisted of hunting rifles and handguns. He doesn’t believe any semi-automatic assault rifles or shotguns were among the bunch.

Police are still piecing together details, but this much is clear, according to Hanley:

•  “There may be some other charges down the road, but right now it’s the treatment issues we’re dealing with.”

•  “It was between a couple of kids. It may have been some bullying or that kind of stuff. We’re still trying to pull (the investigation) together. There have been a lot of interviews and statements given.”

•  “We’ve talked to the state’s attorney and there may be some juvenile charges in the future”

Spearheading the investigation are Middlebury police Officer Nick Stewart, School Resource Officer Connor Sousa, Det. Kris Bowdish and Sgt. Mike Christopher.

MUMS serves students in grades 7 and 8 hailing from the ACSD-member towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.

SCHOOL ALERTS PARENTS

Members of the MUMS community first learned of the investigation through an email they received on Monday from Addison Central School District Superintendent Peter Burrows.

“I am writing to you about a matter that may already be under discussion in the community,” reads the email, a copy of which was obtained by the Addison Independent. “We learned over the weekend that a group of middle school students had discussed and made threats of violence involving Middlebury Union Middle School.

“There is an ongoing police investigation,” Burrows adds in his letter. “We cannot identify the students because of federal privacy laws. However, I can assure you that safety is our highest priority. We have worked collaboratively with law enforcement, and MUMS has security procedures in place to protect our students. Further, we will not permit the students who made the threats to return to the middle school until the students are found to be safe by someone with expertise in making those assessments.”

Burrows concludes his letter by emphasizing the importance of children voicing their concerns about safety on or off campus.

“We urge you to talk to your student about this,” he said.

Hanley said his department will continue to work closely with ACSD schools on safety issues.

“We’re all on the same page on this,” he said.

NEXT STEPS

In assessing risk in young people and trying to heal young clients who are harboring resentment and considering violence, Counseling Service of Addison County works with community partners to gather information on the history of the people involved, current situation and concerns, according to CSAC Executive Director Robert Thorn.

“Our long standing partnerships with schools, medical community, police and DCF help to coordinate care and work together well in such situations,” he told the Independent.

Counselors meet with individual children and families and clinically assess the situation, mental status, risk factors, resiliency, history, supports, safety factors and the like, Thorn said. And then CSAC makes a safety plan for the child and their family, as well as treatment recommendations.

“That may include intensive treatment including hospitalization, and other community agencies,” he said. “We consider the individual, the family and community in safety planning.”

Addison County State’s Attorney Dennis Wygmans and couldn’t be reached for comment for this report.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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