BRATTLEBORO, Vt. — On the night of Jan. 27, a Sunday, Brattleboro-area parents were thrown into a minor panic when the school district sent out an automated call alerting them to a vague threat and informing them that, come Monday morning, schools would be placed in a state of heightened security.
Because there was little information offered on the call, many parents took to calling the local police department, as well as the Brattleboro Reformer’s newsroom. Given it was a Sunday night, and just past our press deadline, there was really no further information to be found. But just how little information would be offered in the coming days was even more surprising.
By Monday morning, I was able to listen to the “robo-call,” make a few calls to confirm basic facts and begin running breaking news on our website and social media outlets. But it was clear parents and others in the community were dissatisfied with the lack of information coming from officials. Throughout the day updates came in drips and drabs — a release from the Brattleboro town manager’s office; brief interviews with the chief of police and school superintendent — but all that would be confirmed was there had been a vague threat that may possibly involve area school-aged students. But no laws had been broken and no further information would be offered.
However, the reaction in Brattleboro had, in my opinion, two unforeseen side-effects: an unusually high absentee rate in the Brattleboro-area schools (as high as 50 to 60 percent); and similar reactions at neighboring school districts throughout Windham County as well as in nearby southwestern New Hampshire.
I understood the reaction, given the recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn., where a gunman killed 26 people at an elementary school, including 20 students, before turning the gun on himself. I could also understand the initial lack of information, given that officials were ensuring the safety of the area schools and students. However, as my reporters continued to do follow-ups on the “alert,” it became clear no further information would be made available, even as things returned to normal.
The week following the event, I began work on a news analysis, attempting to examine what had triggered the heightened security. It became clear the various officials involved did not want to discuss the matter further, and may have been unsure exactly what they should or could divulge. However, by connecting the dots through various tidbits learned off-the-record, I was able to start developing a theory of what had happened.
It appeared that a man, identified in court papers as “K.G.,” had been brought into court Jan. 25 for an involuntary commitment hearing. We presumed it was this person who made the threats that triggered the heightened school security. We made a request for the court documents but were provided only with a copy of the court’s schedule for that day, which confirmed a commitment hearing had taken place.
When appealing the decision, our letter read in part:
“It is in the public interest to know the name of the person who made the alleged threats, the nature of the threats and the institution or person that requested the involuntary commitment. … It is also in the public interest for the Reformer to review the transcript to determine why the court made the decision it made and if it was the appropriate decision.”
While Superior Court Judge John Wesley agreed with our argument, the case has since moved along to Vermont’s Supreme Court on appeal by the lawyer for “K.G.” There’s no indication when a ruling will come down.
We were able to get copies of some court documents before the appeal was filed, and they confirmed much of the information we knew off-the-record and identified the person at the heart of the matter. But we have yet to see court transcripts and understand why the court originally decided not to hold the man against his will.
Some may argue this is simply an effort to sell more papers. But when something like this happens, it’s important for information to be publicly available, especially to parents who want to know why school officials felt they needed to do more to ensure their children’s safety.