Parents hear about 'mass harm' legislation

Addison-Rutland School Board member Andrea Ochs speaks to a panel of state officials in Fair Haven on Saturday morning. (Kate Barcellos photo)

FAIR HAVEN — Eight local lawmakers who met with parents and school board members at Fair Haven Union High School on Saturday said they were in the process of drafting legislation that would criminalize the intent to cause mass harm. The Legislature plans to take up the issue today. The Fair Haven meeting was held in response to the recent Vermont Supreme Court ruling that found the state lacked sufficient evidence to hold former FHUHS student Jack Sawyer without bail on attempted murder charges. Sawyer has been jailed since February after police said he was planning to stage a mass shooting at the school he once attended. “We owe them all change, and that's exactly why we’re here," said meeting organizer Michele Murray. "The next time this happens, we don’t want someone released because they were able to continue to cite cases starting in 1906. We want them to remain behind bars because they were able to cite the 2018 case against Jack Sawyer.” Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, told parents that lawmakers aimed to have a bill  to change the law regarding what constitutes an attempted crime ready for a hearing by April 25. "We just have to be careful that we don't enact something with unintended consequences," said Sen. Brian Callamore, R-Rutland. Rutland County State's Attorney Rose Kennedy urged lawmakers to convey the need for swift action to other members of the Legislature. “Please give us an 'attempt' statute that we can use,” Kennedy said. "I understand that there’s limited amount of time left, but please, please, please get it done.”

Flory stressed that further legislative action cannot be retroactive.

"We’re trying to add in a criminal 'threatening,' a couple of other measures so should this ever happen again, or should Sawyer get out and issue additional threats, we would be able to get him arrested and hopefully held," she said. Public Safety Commissioner Tom Anderson said Gov. Phil Scott met with lawmakers and Cabinet members Friday to focus on improving statewide safety protocol and protecting community members from Sawyer, should he be released. Anderson said an extreme-risk protection law was enacted last week and the state sought to have it applied to Sawyer, who is being held pending a hearing.
Anderson said the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will contact every federal firearms licensee in the state to identify Sawyer as being ineligible for any firearms purchase, in the event he is released.
He also said Scott requested from the Legislature $5 million in school safety grants, $4 million of which would go toward infrastructure improvements in schools. The other $1 million from the Department of Public Safety would reallocate Homeland Security grant funding for training, planning, and exercising for active shooter events and other threatening situations, he said.
A letter written by Superintendent Brooke Olsen Farrell to Scott on April 12 on behalf of parents and members of the Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union expressed their concern about the Supreme Court's decision. "The continued stress and anxiety surrounding the potential release of Mr. Sawyer, has struck fear throughout our community,” Olsen Farrell said. "We are told it is not illegal to carry out preparations to cause mass casualties in a school. We are told it is not illegal to purchase guns and ammunition with the intent to carry out a planned threat at a school. Do we really have to wait until the damage is done? Do we have to wait until the bullets fly to be able to take action?" Fair Haven social studies teacher Julia Adams said she doesn't feel she can confidently assure students they are safe in her classroom on the second floor, which has a glass wall and a door without fire-code-qualified locking system.
"You have a civic duty to go to the State House and do something," Adams said tearfully. "I want change, and you are going to do something for me. You can bet my kids will be at that State House."
Julie Finnegan, vice chairwoman of the FHUHS School Board, said increased law enforcement presence and heightened security measures have the potential to continue into next year, and parents should be aware of the financial burden. "The presence will be here, the support is here, the governor is with us,” Finnegan said. "We're upgrading the phones on Monday to E911 compliance to the tune of $30,000, so you can see where we’re headed with this." Parents raised concerns over whether there would be an additional school resource officer present in the school, and where police will be during big school events. Finnegan said the school prom will be held off-site and law enforcement will be present whenever the school building is open, as well as at prom and graduation.
“You’ll probably be high-fiving a police officer on your way in the door,” Finnegan said.

Monday, the governor spoke of the need for legislative action. “The mere possibility that someone with a clear intent to murder innocent children could be back on the street shows there is an unacceptable loophole in our current criminal law,” Scott said. He said he wants the changes made before April 23, when Fair Haven students return from vacation, although they could not be applied retroactively to the Sawyer case. The heads of the Senate and House judiciary committees said Monday that they will take up “attempt” language today. But Sen. Richard Sears, chairman of the Senate panel, said it would be difficult to have a domestic terrorism bill signed by the governor by April 23. “My first priority is the attempts bill,” he said. The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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