School Threats: The story behind the headlines

Published: Mar. 3, 2022 at 6:49 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - There have been 62 school threats reported to the Vermont State Police so far this school year. While many of the situations are settled behind closed doors, others unfold in the public spotlight and the evening news. Beyond the headlines and police lights, reporter Christina Guessferd met with one student who sent his school into several lockdowns, forcing the family to face judgment and the community to grapple with how to provide support.

Meet Henry McBroom. The 6th grader hasn’t spent much time in school, so he’s found solace at skate parks, always concentrating on the next trick. It’s a place where his mother, Katherine Taylor-McBroom, says they both get a break from the worries of the outside world. “He feels alienated, and of course, this is where he doesn’t feel alienated,” Taylor-McBroom said.

At the park, Henry is a cool, funny, charismatic kid. At home, the family store the thick stack of Henry’s disciplinary slips, school suspensions, and mental health surveys that date back to first grade. “He’s had to have school evacuated, and classrooms and gyms,” Taylor-McBroom said. “We went to work every day, not knowing when we were going to get called and what was going to happen. So, that stress was there every single day... it feels like your child is drowning and there’s no way you can help them.”

Over the years, Henry has caused several disruptions at Edmunds School in Burlington, from throwing lunch trays to jumping down stairwells to threatening to bring a weapon to class. “You get the email, ‘this happened at school,’ and you know that’s your kid,” Taylor-McBroom said. “I don’t want to minimize other kids’ experiences when things like that happen... there’s another side to this that is not comfortable.”

It’s the aftermath of an internal threat, once the police cruisers clear the scene and kids are back in the classrooms, that the team of people responding to that student’s cry for help, get to work.

“All kids want to be successful, and I think all kids would demonstrate positive behaviors if they feel like they have the skills to do so. When students act out, when they make threats, there’s usually underlying causes or reasons for that,” said Dylan McNamara, the social/emotional learning director for the Essex Westford School District. “We pull together a group of adults that have both mental health expertise as well as have familiarity with the student... We want to look at whether a student has access to weapons, whether they have some underlying mental health challenges, whether they have a history of using violence to solve problems, or whether they believe that violence is the way to solve problems. We want to look at what level of supervision they have outside of school.”

Collecting that information helps the district determine the credibility of the threat. But McNamara says more importantly, what level of support the district should be providing to the student. He says the team immediately designs a short-term safety plan, including parents locking up weapons at home and counselors conducting daily bag checks. Then, it’s the school-based mental health clinicians who hold that student and family’s hands for the long haul.

“We’re trying to really kind of open reflection with the student and understand the intent of the action. We really believe that all behavior is communication. So, what was the behavior trying to communicate? Is this student feeling disconnected, marginalized in some way, angry, embarrassed?” said Alice Scannell, a school services clinical supervisor at the Howard Center.

The center has clinicians embedded in every Chittenden County school except one. Scannell supervises several in the South Burlington and Mount Mansfield Unified School Districts. In a crisis, she says these case managers might collaborate with the 24/7 hotline -- First Call -- to stabilize a dysregulated student, administer a mental health assessment, refer to an outpatient provider, or even recommend a residential facility. In the weeks and months that follow, clinicians serve as a liaison between administrators and the family, establishing strategies to meet treatment goals, reporting the

student’s progress, and strengthening ties with loved ones they may have strained.

“When students are going through this, I think an invisible piece of it is the emotional toll that happens for the parents of students who do this behavior. They’re going through a level of shock, sometimes denial, anger, grief, confusion, and it’s really isolating for those parents,” Scannell said.

Emotions wrought with shame and guilt over which Taylor-McBroom has shed many tears. The family used all of those resources and she’s confident they were effective for most. But Henry’s process was slow, in part, due to the pandemic and Vermont’s shortage of psychiatrists. Ultimately, she says she hopes sharing their story will discourage the community from demonizing troubled children and judging the struggling parent. “We give him lots of love. We fight for him for everything -- For his IEP, for his behavior interventionist, for his Howard center resources,” Taylor-McBroom said.

After multiple misdiagnoses, Henry only recently learned he’s living with bipolar disorder.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: How do you think people view you?

Henry McBroom: They view me as a bad person. They view me as like maybe an evil person.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: But you know that’s not true. What would you want people to know about you who may not know you very well?

Henry McBroom: I’d like them to know that I’ve changed and that I’m more calm now and I can be chill and if you just give me a chance, I can be a good person.

Now on different medication, Taylor-McBroom says he’s doing well and is grateful for all those who supported them in the Green Mountain State.

Since we first visited the McBrooms, they have moved closer to family in Tennessee.

Reporter Christina Guessferd: How does it feel knowing you’re going to get a fresh start?

Henry McBroom: I feel on top of the world. I feel amazing... Everybody will see a new me.

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