By John Flowers/Addison Independent
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 another student, and possibly others, on campus on Tuesday, Dec. 18.
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 adults about the alleged shooting plot.
Details of the alleged MUMS shooting plan might never come to public light. All proceedings in juvenile court are confidential.
“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 up their inquiry, 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.
On Saturday, Dec. 15, Middlebury police received a call from a person whom Hanley described as a MUMS parent whose student at the school had expressed “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 – including the heroic informant – 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.
“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.
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.
Addison County Deputy State’s Attorney Chris Perkett said this was the first case involving an alleged school violence plan that he had seen brought forward since he joined the office 15 years ago.
Perkett said the young suspects had “a date, a time and a plan,” though he added, “I wouldn’t call it a sophisticated plan.”
But any plan to perpetrate violence has to be taken seriously, he stressed.
“Whenever you put a firearm in the hands of someone who’s prepared to use it, you don’t need an elaborate plan for tragedy to occur,” he said. “All that has to happen is for someone to pull the trigger and we can have a grieving family. And if this had gone forward, that’s what we would have had.”
Perkett praised the boy whose information led to an unraveling of the alleged shooting plan.
“I think this is one of those circumstances where we see a young man who was scared, but did the right thing… As a result, lives were saved.”
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.
A copy of that email was obtained by The Addison Independent, it reads in part: “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 concluded his letter by emphasizing the importance of children voicing their concerns about safety on or off campus.