Vermont and Bennington College Address Gun Violence

Vermont State Flag, courtesy of Flagnations

Vermont State Flag, courtesy of Flagnations

By Jorja Rose '18

The February 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, has prompted a nationwide discussion about gun control. Following the massacre, which killed 17 students and teachers, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Walmart vowed to change their firearm policies, corporations cut ties with the National Rifle Association, and even President Trump shifted his stance on background checks.

Reverberations of the event can be felt here in Vermont. This Thursday, the Vermont State Senate passed an amendment requiring federal background checks prior to the private transfer of any weapon. This legislation comes on the heels of the February 16 arrest of Jack Sawyer, an eighteen-year-old man from Poultney who’d made plans to shoot up Fair Haven Union High School, going so far as to buy a firearm and ammunition to execute the attack. A friend tipped off local police after receiving worrisome messages from Sawyer, and law enforcement later discovered his journal, titled “Diary of an Active Shooter,” in which he’d detailed his plans. Sawyer is currently being held without bail.

Although Vermont maintains low rates of violent crime despite its heavy gun culture, this seemingly close call brings new awareness to the possibility of gun violence. The anxiety is present here at Bennington College, where admissions interns have fielded multiple questions from prospective students about Bennington’s emergency preparedness in recent weeks, submitted anonymously to the admissions blog Tapped In.

It isn’t just students who are thinking over the possible threat of gun violence. At a meeting held at 9 a.m. this past Thursday, Bennington staff deliberated over how to address the issue to students. Present at this meeting were Senior Vice President for Institutional Initiatives David Rees, Director of Human Resources Heather Faley, Director of Campus Safety Ken Collamore, Dean of Students Xenia Markowitt, Dean of Studies Laurie Kobick, and a few representatives from the Department of Communications.

In line with national trends, Bennington College is taking steps to ensure the safety of students, staff, and faculty in the event of an attack. An email the Communications Department will send out early this week outlines the college’s efforts to heighten security and preparedness. These initiatives include establishing a Threat Assessment and Emergency Preparedness Team two years ago, utilizing the college’s mass communications system, keeping residential houses locked to anyone without a key card, enforcing the college’s no weapons policy, and partnering with the Bennington Police Department on active shooter training and protocols.

In addition, Bennington College has entered the National Intercollegiate Mutual Aid Agreement through the International Association of Emergency Managers University and Colleges Caucus.

“We have the framework in place, and we have partnerships ready,” says Collamore, addressing any possible threat of gun violence on the Bennington campus. However, there are no plans to involve students in an active shooter drill, which Collamore notes might be unnecessarily triggering.

Collamore commends Bennington students on their willingness to report concerning behavior. He explains, “One thing about the student body is that you seem to have your own unwritten moral compass. Someone always steps up.” He adds that in the event of a shooting, “Normally, there are some signs -- but not always, and that’s the problem.”

In the event of an imminent threat to the entire community, a siren that can be heard from across campus will sound from the roof of VAPA. This alarm is an instruction to seek shelter. As Collamore says, “That siren means hunker down.”

An additional note: A new pop-up called “After Parkland: Gun culture, gun violence, and the shifting politics of gun control” with the Senator Brian Campion is happening in late March.