By Patrick McArdle
Almost 240 Vermont schools have been awarded safety grants from a $5 million funding package, from which $4 million will be used for safety improvements and $1 million will be used to develop emergency plans, training and safety drills.
The grants will fund 560 separate projects in 239 schools to help tighten security, through upgrades such as interior and exterior door locks and public address and alert systems.
“I think any government — and particularly state government — but any government, their first responsibility is the safety of its citizens, especially our kids,” said Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday.
Scott, while not mentioning Jack Sawyer by name, said he became concerned after “reading the affidavit in February.”
Sawyer, 19, of Poultney, was arrested in February after police said they learned he had made plans to stage a school shooting at Fair Haven Union High School.
The major charges against Sawyer were later dismissed following a ruling by a three-member panel of the Vermont Supreme Court that found the state lacked the evidence to hold Sawyer without bail.
Scott said he noted Sawyer’s arrest came soon after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead and 17 wounded.
Scott put together a school safety assessment task force, which met in March. The task force recommended safety improvements and school officials were invited to make proposals, which were reviewed by a different 12-member committee.
In a statement, State Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Pittsford/Brandon, a member of the House Corrections and Institutions Committee, said he was “very pleased that the committee recommended funding the governor’s school safety grant program this year.”
“I am looking forward to seeing the results that will be achieved in our efforts to ensure we continue to have safe and healthy schools. The only thing our kids should have to worry about in school is whether or not they’ve completed their homework or prepared enough for the big test,” he said.
Scott said the school safety funding received bipartisan support and a number of emergency-response agencies cooperated to get the funding program ready as soon as possible. The governor said he hopes some of the projects that were funded will be in place by the start of the coming school year.
Erica Bornemann, director of Vermont Emergency Management, said she hoped that parents like herself, who have children in Vermont schools, would appreciate that Vermont is being proactive about safety issues.
“I have kids in school and I was glad to see that our schools also applied for the funding. As a parent, I want to know that my school is doing every single thing possible to keep my kid safe because I give my children to them on a daily basis. There’s nothing I can do while I’m standing on the outside if something happens. So I have to know that their staff is trained and their teachers are trained and the kids know what to do when an incident occurs,” she said.
Bornemann said her department works with schools throughout the year to help them with safety training and developing emergency response plans.
Vermont schools were eligible for up to $25,000 and will be responsible for a 25 percent match of their grant award. The average award was around $16,000.
Scott said he expected another assessment would be done during the 2018-19 school year to see if a similar funding package would be needed.
“School safety and safety issues are ongoing and we want to make sure that we take care of that situation,” he said.
Another task force, the Violence Prevention Task Force, which, Scott said, was called to look at school and community safety issues, had its first meeting last week.
“Whether it’s mental health issues or whatever it is, we need to get to the root cause in order to prevent this type of horrific incident from happening in our state,” Scott said.