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Community dealing with lasting effects of school shooting plot

(WCAX)
Published: Feb. 15, 2019 at 6:14 AM EST
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Jack Sawyer was arrested one year ago and accused of planning to shoot up Fair Haven Union High School. His arrest triggered new gun control laws and attitudes about school safety in Vermont.

One year later, the community is still dealing with the lasting effects from the incident.

"There wasn't physical drama, but I think there was emotional trauma that ensued," said Brooke Olsen-Farrell, superintendent of the Addison-Rutland Supervisory Union, which includes FHUHS.

The hallways are empty at FHUHS, but there are signs of love everywhere.

"I think the community has been tremendously supportive of the school district and the staff and the students," Olsen-Farrell said.

One year ago, Sawyer allegedly plotted a mass-shooting here. Police say he detailed his plan in diary entries, which included what guns he needed and who he intended to target first. A concerned friend went to police and Sawyer was arrested. Ultimately, the most serious charges against him were dismissed and the case was moved to family court, out of the public's eye.

Reporter Adam Sullivan: Do you have those answers as far as where he is, or what's going on?

Brooke Olsen-Farrell: It's nothing that I am able to really discuss.

Not a single bullet was fired at the school, but the incident has had a lasting effect. In fact, on this day, a trauma specialist was meeting with teachers.

Olsen-Farrell says the school community is closer because of the incident.

"If a student is having trouble we have supports in place, but overall as a district, we are focusing on social, emotional wellness," she said.

The district also put a half-million dollars into increased security, which includes more line-of-sight at the front entrance.

"At the time -- very, very, scary. Especially for the parents and family members that had kids in school," said Mike Briggs, who lives near the school and has family members who attended it. "You have to have that in the back of your head. He could come back here and finish what he wanted to do."

The incident also prompted new laws including a ban on high-capacity magazines and a domestic terrorism law making it a crime to take "substantial steps" to threaten to kill or kidnap groups of people.

Olsen-Farrell says more needs to be done.

"Making sure our story is told and make sure that we continue to work legislatively to put new laws in place that will help protect school districts," she said.

School officials say they will continue to be resilient as they stand together, stronger, one year later.

WHY JACK SAWYER'S CASE IS NOW CONFIDENTIAL

Sawyer's case sparked a flurry of legal changes in Vermont.

Controversial new gun laws targeting high-risk individuals and high-capacity magazines, among others. Also, a domestic terrorism law that would make school shooting plots like Sawyer's illegal in the future.

But while the legal fallout from the Sawyer case was public during the summer, his case disappeared from the public court record. In August, his case was moved from criminal court to family court, which means what happened next is a mystery.

Sources have told us that the case being transferred to family court is indicative that it is a youthful offender case and was most likely the first one under the expansion of the state's youthful offender law that now allows people up to the age of 22 to be treated as juveniles in the eyes of the law, an expansion that also took effect last summer.

One year later, we wanted to know if Sawyer is in treatment or back in the community. And we can't find out. We asked legal expert Jerry O'Neill to explain what happens when a case like that goes to family court.

"Once the case goes to family court, there's a very different process," O'Neill said. "For example, there is no right to trial by jury. There is confidentiality. Virtually no one can go into the courtroom to see the process take place. The process is entirely confidential. The adjudication and determination of what's going to happen with the juvenile is confidential. The only exception to that would be if, for whatever reasons, the case is transferred back over to the criminal court. But otherwise, once it goes behind the closed doors of the juvenile process, it's completely confidential."

So the public will not know what the ultimate ruling is and what happens to the accused.

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: Is a prosecutor allowed to tell the community what happened?

Jerry O'Neill: No.

So who will be keeping track of Sawyer? O'Neill says the Vermont Department for Children and Families is responsible for monitoring youthful offenders after they are adjudicated. We asked whether law enforcement would be notified and O'Neill says that's communication that could happen between the DCF caseworker and police as needed.