BRATTLEBORO — It started as a private alert. But in the wake of last month’s school shootings in Newtown, Conn., it unintentionally snowballed into a public alarm.
Educators here — learning from authorities over the weekend that “a person who had previously made nonspecific threats regarding school-age people might be returning to the area” — decided to robocall 2,500 families in Brattleboro and neighboring Dummerston, Guilford, Putney and Vernon on Sunday night to report schools in their towns would lock all doors to outsiders Monday morning.
“These measures are precautionary while school officials and our local and state police work together to ensure all of our students remain safe,” a recording said around 9:30 p.m. “I’m sorry for the late call, and have a great evening.”
But with no further explanation and most everyone else asleep, many parents turned to Facebook in hopes of filling in the blanks.
“The message I got,” one mother posted, “was scary enough for me not to send my child to school.”
“What is going on,” another replied, “and why haven’t they warned neighboring districts?”
“They wanted to sound like they were on top of things,” one father wrote, “but with all the vagueness all they did was cause a mass panic.”
By the time the opening bell rang less than 12 hours later, nearly half of the 2,500 students in the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union were absent, while educators in most every other school in the county were locking their own doors — if only because, in some cases, it seemed everyone else was.
Authorities spent the rest of Monday trying to restore the peace.
“There has been no direct threats to any student or any school,” said Brattleboro Police Chief Eugene Wrinn. He explained the initial alert to his town’s educators: “We’re just taking safety to an umpteenth degree.” And said of periodic police patrols: “We’re just trying to put a calming face on the situation.”
Speaking privately, officials said they routinely receive alerts about people being released from some sort of court or mental health custody. Usually they simply communicate the information to the appropriate agencies. But the enormity of the latest school shooting has sparked a turn toward hyper-vigilance.
“Since the recent tragedy at Newtown we are extremely sensitive to possible threats to our children and will respond in a proactive manner,” Town Manager Barbara Sondag said. “While we live in a time that requires us to be watchful, the individual in question has violated no laws and our response must therefore be balanced.”
Leaders said Monday’s biggest challenge wasn’t from the person they wouldn’t identify and said had yet to do anything to warrant investigation. Instead, they struggled to tame public fear that led some parents to speculate online whether the threat was the work of a “neo-Nazi group.”
“I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to allay concerns,” said Steven John, superintendent of the neighboring 10-town Windham Central Supervisory Union. “It’s unfortunate that parents and the public have a heightened sense of anxiety.”
Windham Southeast Superintendent Ron Stahley apologized for the last-minute calls, which he said were delayed by technical difficulties. Schools in his supervisory union will communicate through more timely phone announcements and coordinate “precautionary measures” with authorities to ensure a general sense of safety.
“We hope that this passes without incident,” Stahley said, “and, with more information, people feel the schools are safe.”
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