“This legislative session has taken a hard turn,” Sibilia said to a packed room at Twin Valley Middle High School. “We were legalizing marijuana and all of a sudden it is all gun legislation and school safety legislation. John and I were quite concerned with the speed with which the session was changing. We thought it was important for us to hear from as many of our constituents as possible.”
The focus on issues of school safety and gun control intensified in February, when, shortly after a school shooting in Parkland, FL, an 18-year-old Poultney resident, who allegedly planned a school shooting in Fair Haven, was arrested. In response, in what some have called a “180” on the issue of gun control, Gov. Phil Scott sent a memorandum to legislators outlining points of action he wanted them to take, including measures to strengthen school security, protect those who speak up, and keep guns “out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them.”
Attendees at Sunday’s meeting were given three minutes to provide testimony to Gannon and Sibilia, who didn’t engage in a back and forth with constituents and didn’t indicate their own views on the topics. The testimony provided a glimpse at how the matter has spurred emotional and diverse conversations across the region, with issues of self-defense, protection of the Second Amendment, gun control measures, mental health, societal trends, and school safety discussed.
John Pratt, of Readsboro, said he is a lifetime NRA member and spoke about guns both as a constitutional right and as an important means of self-defense. “I have all the respect for law enforcement in the world, but if I call the cops on North Hill, the average is an hour to respond,” said Pratt. “Response time is not good around here. Richard the game warden is it for us.”
Many spoke about the tradition of and constitutional right to gun ownership, teaching responsibility about firearms to children, and having been taught that responsibility in their own youth. Most people, including some of the minority of speakers who spoke in support of new gun legislation, said they do not want all guns banned, including Sarah Shippee, a Dover Selectboard member, who said she’s what some may call a “bleeding heart liberal.” But Shippee said she does believe that some people’s access to guns should be restricted.
“There are people who are not qualified to own a gun,” said Shippee, “and I understand that bad people will always be able to find access to a gun. But is there any way to make it a little bit harder? A little bit more difficult for the bad guy to not get a gun? Or the person who has the mental capacity to kill a large number of people.”
That capacity to kill, and an overall shift within society that may foster it, was often referenced at the meeting, with several speakers saying they had concerns that a lack of religion taught in schools, in combination with disengaged parents, may be contributing to a society that trends toward violence.
“As soon as we took God out of schools and out of our society, then what happened? It’s a spiral downhill for us,” said Donald Tatro, of Readsboro. “And evil will reign. We have to bring society back where we can have love in our hearts and in our children and in their minds, and not all this violence.”
Jason Morse, of Whitingham, said he’s concerned that uninvolved parenting is contributing to the issue of violence. “Children crave discipline, love, understanding,” said Morse. “When they don’t get it, they act out to get your attention. And their minds are not developed enough to know the difference between right and wrong.”
Stephanie Pike, of Halifax, who is a teacher at Brattleboro Area Middle School, said she sees many students who are facing extreme challenges at home, and that she feels schools need resources for helping them. “We need to work more on providing supports for students who do not have it at home,” said Pike. “We are maxed out at schools, and our job is to make sure they don’t want to cause harm.”
David VanPamelen, of Newfane, echoed Pike’s message, saying as a foster parent he wishes the government would pour more resources into helping children in need. “We’re headed in the wrong direction,” he said. “We want to make gun laws? How about instead of deducting from mental health, increase it a hundredfold. How about DCF personnel? That keeps getting cut. DCF personnel have the highest and craziest workloads of anyone. Twenty-five caseloads for one person? It’s impossible to do a good job, and these kids are traumatized.”
Marie Paige, a teacher at Twin Valley Elementary School in Wilmington, said she commended Gov. Scott for his memo regarding school safety and violence, because it addressed guns along with bullying and mental health issues. “It’s really looking at the complexity of all of the different branches that are causing this issue,” said Paige, “and for people to feel like shooting children is a way to appease something in themselves.”
On the issue of school safety, Shippee expressed a desire to keep schools safe in ways that aren’t outwardly extreme. “I think there are creative ways of securing buildings where they don’t have to turn into a jail,” said Shippee. “I don’t know if there are ways to lock down sections of a building at a time. To control, or compartmentalize.”
Pike said that as an educator, security, too, is an area where schools need more resources from the government. “I have no way to lock down my classroom other than to lock my door,” said Pike. “And I’ve been told by the school district that I need to figure that out myself. I don’t think that’s right.”
Several speakers suggested that school security be bolstered, with some suggesting that private security firms be brought in to secure buildings. “When 9/11 happened and we locked down the airports, we didn’t ban planes,” said Jessie Rice, of Whitingham. “I don’t think we need to get rid of firearms, I think we need better security.”
Hillary Twining, a parent in Dover, said she feels strongly that teachers should not be armed. “If that was a route that a school went, that would be a decision to take my daughter out of that school,” said Twining. “That would be a very unsafe environment.”
James Martin, also of Dover, expressed the same, noting that he is a lifetime NRA member and is on the board of directors of the Deerfield Valley Sportsmen’s Club. “Arming teachers is the worst thing you could ever do,” said Martin. “Sooner or later a youngster is going to figure out where that teacher put that gun, and if it isn’t strapped to them you may have a bigger problem.”
Michelle O’Neil, a parent in Wilmington, said she has traditionally been very involved in her children’s school, but since security was tightened more in recent weeks, she feels a disconnect. “I want to know the kids in their classes,” said O’Neil. “I want to know their influence. The parents who are going in are those who love their kids. I feel like as we move forward and as we decide to lock our doors, I want to make sure we’re not disconnecting our parents and our volunteers.”
Sibilia and Gannon thanked attendees for sharing their thoughts, and asked that anyone who was not able to attend or did not feel comfortable speaking publicly get in touch with them directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.