When Does a Planned School Shooting Become Illegal?

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath

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when does a planned school shooting become illegalA recent case in Vermont has raised the question of when does a planned school shooting become illegal. In 2018, Jack Sawyer, a student at Fair Haven Union High School in Vermont, carefully detailed a plan to shoot up the school in a journal titled, “The journal of an active school shooter.” The entry listed who he wanted to kill, including the school resource officer, detailing how he would prevent security from stopping the attack. 

Following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, an acquaintance reported Sawyer’s suspicious reaction to the tragedy to state police, who intercepted his plan, according to CBS News. Prosecutors charged Sawyer with attempted murder and aggravated assault - but Vermont law dictates that “planning” is not “attempting.”

Now, the case and subsequent legal battle have raised legal and ethical questions about at which point a plan becomes a crime. In April of 2018, prosecutors were forced to drop the felony charges against Sawyer, after the Supreme Court ruled there was “no attempt” since the plan was not acted upon. For members of the school community, Sawyer’s case caused significant emotional trauma, as well as raising new anxieties for parents and family members. In response to the incident, the state made several moves toward changing legislature to better address situations in which an individual plans a mass shooting. 

Following arrest, Jack Sawyer told detectives his plan to “set a new record” for number of deaths in a school shooting, according to NPR. Even more chilling, recorded conversations show Sawyer telling lawyers that he planned to go through with the attack, and considered the arrest only “delaying” the plan. However, Sawyer had a history of mental illness, and had been hospitalized several times before turning 17, a background initially unavailable to prosecutors assigned to the case. Vermont Supreme Court ultimately ruled to dismiss felony charges, making a prison-sentence unlikely in favor of mental health intervention.  

When Does Intent Become A Crime? 

In April of 2018, Sawyer was released from jail under an agreement that he would go into a psychiatric facility. He was also court ordered to stay away from the high school and student who reported his plan. Lawyers ultimately moved the case to family court - a decision which kept the case confidential and allowed for more potential treatment options to be pursued, versus jail time, but contributed to anxiety within the town. The threat and subsequent ruling left the community uneasy - and raised difficult questions about when a planned mass shooting becomes a punishable crime in the state of Vermont, as well as other states across the United States. 

Prosecutor Rose Kennedy, who oversaw Sawyer’s case, respected the Supreme Court’s decision but expressed frustration over the precedent set, according to NPR. Following the ruling, Kennedy worried the case would represent a failure to prevent future mass shootings. “There is still a chasm in the case law in Vermont,” she said. “There's got to be a place where law enforcement should be able to act to stop a horrific crime from occurring that's a lot sooner on this continuum than when someone actually shows up to commit the act.” 

NPR pointed out that courts can only interpret the law, and in order to change the way active shooter threats go to trial, legislators must take action. Lawmakers in Vermont changed the state's attempt laws, passing a domestic terrorism law. The new legislation, which several other states have adopted, allow teens to be charged when making terroristic threats, taking “substantial” steps toward toward threatening to kill or kidnap large groups of people. 

Following Sawyer’s threats, lawmakers also passed a new red flag law, which would prevent individuals with a history of being a risk to themselves or others to buy firearms. Legislators have also promised constituents that they will continue to close loopholes, such as a ban on high-capacity magazines. Under the new red flag law, Sawyer will not be able to purchase firearms in the state of Vermont. 

However, Marsha Levick, a chief legal officer at the Juvenile Law Center, said that even with improved domestic terrorism laws, the country is struggling to define when an incident is a real threat. There is no consensus across the country on which boundaries must be crossed to punish terroristic threats, or what the consequences should be. 

How Can Schools Address Threats? 

Even though the threat never resulted in an active shooter situation, students and teachers were traumatized by the incident. Family court decisions are usually kept private, but lawyers and Sawyer’s family came to a mutual agreement that it was important to update the community of his whereabouts. Sawyer was transferred to an out-of-state residential mental health facility, and will remain under observation by Vermont state agencies until his 22nd birthday. For many students, parents, teachers, and staff, the ruling doesn’t provide much consolation.  

Mike Briggs, a Fair Haven resident, told a local news outlet that the threat instilled anxiety in many community members. "At the time -- very, very, scary. Especially for the parents and family members that had kids in school,” he said. “You have to have that in the back of your head. He could come back here and finish what he wanted to do." The superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell reiterated this sentiment to the outlet as well, saying, “There wasn't physical drama, but I think there was emotional trauma that ensued.” 

An active-shooter threats of this nature can make it difficult for students and teachers to feel safe again, especially in a country already on edge amid incidents of gun violence. There are several steps that Fair haven took to assuage community fears. Trauma specialists met with teachers to teach coping strategies and how to better handle student concerns. The district also put half a million dollars into improving physical security measures, including creating better line of sight for the front entrance of the school. 

Technology can provide an extra layer of safety for students, teachers, and staff amid security concerns. A panic button app can provide reassurance for teachers, equipping each individual classroom with the ability to immediately reach law enforcement in any emergency, In addition to being notified of the emergency, law enforcement teams will also be informed of the nature of the emergency and the location of the incident inside of the school. The panic button app also allows teachers to directly communicate with other classrooms and the administration, providing updates as a situation develops. 

In a time where active-shooter threats are rising and communities are on edge, it’s important to provide students and teachers with the adequate resources to feel safe. Bolstering a safety plan in the wake of an active shooter threat is absolutely necessary to keep the community engaged with education, and everything from expanding counseling resources to implementing safety technology can add an extra layer of security during tense times. 

Proven Practices for Improved School Safety

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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