By Katy Savage
RUTLAND—Gov. Phil Scott started a speech before members of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce and Rutland Economic Development Fund Monday, March 12, by addressing what he called “the elephant in the room.”
About a month ago, Fair Haven High School—20 miles from Rutland—was threatened by a shooter. The threat at Fair Haven occurred days after 17 were killed in a Parkland, Florida, school shooting Feb. 14.
Scott told the 150 attendees at the Franklin Conference Center that the state needed to take action. He announced his executive order to create the “Governor’s Violence Prevention Task Force.” He said the task force would examine all aspects of school safety and community protection.
Scott told the Mountain Times that recent violence changed his perspective on gun laws.
“This whole issue in Parkland, Florida, was almost the tipping point,” said Scott.
When asked about the potential tragedy in Fair Haven, Scott said, “It opened my eyes to something I didn’t think was happening in Vermont. I was being naïve. We have to think differently, unfortunately.”
Scott asked all schools to review security procedures by the end of the month. He said he was preparing for the worst.
“It’s just a question of which day, not if,” said Scott.
The threat to school safety is at an all-time high, area educators say.
Woodstock Union High School planned to review procedures with the town’s police chief. Administrators also met with students in each grade to talk about security. WUHS Principal Garon Smail said a number students wanted to be involved in making sure their school was safe.
Rutland High School conducted an active shooter drill in collaboration with Vermont State Police and Rutland County Sheriff’s Department about a week after the Parkland tragedy. The drill is conducted annually, according to a recent news release.
“We have a comprehensive safety plan,” said Rutland City Public Schools Superintendent Mary Moran.
“A safety team meets regularly,” she said.
Moran, like others, said all they can do is plan.
“Any school could struggle with such a thing,” said Moran, adding that no public space is safe.
“It’s not just schools,” she said. “It’s frightening.”
Scott told the attendees of the Rutland conference that he has a list of action items for the task force. Those include evaluating the current background check process, increasing the age to buy a firearm to 21, allowing temporary removal of firearms in the event of violent threat and banning bump stocks. He also said he wanted to strengthen the state’s mental health system.
Scott said his proposal wouldn’t take gun rights away from law-abiding citizens.
“I think most of us agree, no child should be afraid to go to school and no parent should be afraid to put their kids on the bus. And unfortunately, in this ever-changing world, we find ourselves with both those scenarios,” he said.
Many students are also starting to take action into their own hands.
Last week, students across the nation walked out of their classrooms in a national protest movement stemming from Congress’s inaction to tighten gun laws.
The 17-minute walkout on March 14, the one month anniversary, of the Parkland shooting was organized by teenagers in an activist group called Women’s March Youth EMPOWER.
About 200 WUHS students in grades 7-12 walked out of their classrooms. They made speeches and memorialized the Parkland victims. Some students held signs for tighter gun laws.
The walkout and the message behind it also created controversy at some schools.
Some area schools prevented students from walking out of their classrooms. Others controlled the event by having organized protests. Some feared letting students outside would open up a dangerous potential shooter situation.
WUHS student Molly Thompson, one of the organizers behind the walkout at her school, said some people wanted to do a memorial service instead of a gun protest to eliminate the controversy surrounding gun rights. The school ended up doing a combination of protesting and memorializing.
“While it’s important to remember the victims, I felt we needed to talk about the actual issues at hand and open up a conversation about what can be done. That’s the point of the walkout, after all,” said Thompson, age 16.
She said the shooting in Parkland made her realize, “This could happen to anyone. We can’t guarantee that it won’t happen in or near my school too. We can’t guarantee safety,” she said. “The Fair Haven incident only reinforced this idea.”
Thompson made a speech for the walkout. She also organized an event prior for students to make protest signs. Thompson hopes Congress listens to students and takes action.
“I truly believe we are the future and that we can make a difference,” she said.
While Rutland schools were closed due to a blizzard last Wednesday, March 14, Moran said students were planning a memorial for the Parkland victims March 24 from 12-1 p.m. at Main Street Park.