Thursday April 27, 2017
A community recently divided over school related topics was unified in their shared concern for the safety of the city’s children and the school community in the wake of the repeated threats causing lockdowns last week at South Burlington High School (SBHS), and the closure of all district schools on Friday.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation(FBI), aided by the South Burlington Police Department (SBPD) arrested Josiah Leach, an 18 year-old SBHS senior, at 8:30 on Friday evening, April 21, on federal charges of transmitting communications, in interstate commerce, containing threats to injure students and faculty at the school.
High school on alert
The series of incidents began mid-morning on Tuesday, April 18, with threatening messages sent to six South Burlington school email addresses. Over the next days, increasingly menacing messages threatening physical harm were sent to certain recipients at the high school in a phone call, through multiple emails and via Facebook. On Thursday, April 20, an email delivered a specific death threat listing five teachers and 11 students by name. Josiah Leach allegedly included his own name in the targeted list, and identified the school’s Rebel name change as the catalyst for the threats. On Friday, an identical message was shared on Facebook in a video featuring the blurred image of a person reading the message using a computer generated ‘voice’.
District enacts lockdowns
The initial emails containing general threats were considered a low-level risk, but security measures were immediately put in place by the school and SBPD, and an investigation was started. When the next round of threats was received at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, April 19, the high school was again put into lockdown mode. The district sent notifications to parents, and students were dismissed early. Frederick H.Tuttle Middle School remained open, but after-school activities scheduled to take place outside were moved indoors. Superintendent David Young and SBPD Detective Ron Bliss presented information about the school’s crisis plan and addressed parents’ concerns at the school board meeting that night. Some parents reported irregularities in the notifications process, and Young identified that a filtering glitch in the email system had been identified and corrected.
By Thursday, when the threats continued to escalate, students, staff, administrators, and the community were once again faced with the tension-filled and all too familiar procedures of yet another lockdown. Parents and guardians were notified via a district email blast and ‘robo-call’ phone messages; some were able to communicate directly with their children via text messages and email. Families, for a second day, gathered across the street from the high school at City Hall, where city staff welcomed them as they waited together for updates on the evolving situation. At 1:30 p.m., all students were dismissed directly to a fleet of waiting buses, and vacated the school. A district wide cancellation closed schools on Friday; they remain closed this week for April vacation.
SBPD leads investigation
Led by South Burlington Chief of Police Trevor Whipple, the city’s officers and detectives worked with many law enforcement and forensic partners collaborating in an intense investigation that resulted in the identification and arrest of the suspect.
The criminal complaint filed in United States District Court by FBI Special Agent Jennifer Vander Veer, a cyber crime expert at the FBI field office in Albany, New York, cites the specific details of eight separate threats, and traces electronic evidence of the communications to school district servers and networks and other accounts and devices connected to Leach.
At a Friday, April 21 press conference, Chief Whipple offered his appreciation to the FBI, Vermont State Police, the offices of the US Attorney and State’s Attorney, the Champlain College Center for Digital Investigation and the school district Information Technology staff.
“The South Burlington Police Department takes threats, such as those disseminated this week, as an affront to our entire community. The level of anxiety, fear and frustration felt by our residents, students and school staff is unacceptable and will now be addressed by the judicial system,” Chief Whipple said in a statement.
Suspect appears in court
Leach, represented by public defender Elizabeth Quinn, appeared in U.S. District Court Monday, April 24, before Judge Christina Reiss, in a motion for pretrial detention. The motion, prepared by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Dresher, points out that Leach is charged with a crime of violence that leaves not just the named individuals, some of whom are minors, but the entire community in fear. The document goes on to say, “This district has rarely, if ever, seen a crime of violence affecting as many people. As the Criminal Complaint explains, Leach’s conduct disrupted an entire community, affecting the more than 900 students of South Burlington High School, more than 500 students of the South Burlington Middle School, their faculty and staff, with threats of violence. Further, the impact of the threats spread not just to individuals at the high school, but to family members in fear of the safety of their loved ones.” The court papers explaining the reasons why Leach should be detained until the official hearing note that in addition to the violent nature of the threats, he has a history of previous arrests, including in 2014 for a burglary in progress in Burlington. Judge Reiss ordered Leach to be held in custody until Thursday, when the next hearing is scheduled.
Superintendent Young’s communications to parents, guardians and staff during the height of the events spoke to his stated commitment to the safety of students, staff and the community. “We are part of one school family, and one community and we will move forward together,” he said in a memo dated April 21. He expressed deep gratitude for community partners like the SBPD and the City of South Burlington for being invaluable resources for the schools.
City Manager Kevin Dorn commended the police department, saying, “Credit for resolving this issue goes to the hard working men and women of the SBPD and our state and federal partners. This is indicitive of the commitment of our police department to the safety of our community.”
Tim Wile, director of guidance at SBHS, in a message to parents, noted that a variety of responses—some immediate, and some unfolding over time—can be expected in the wake of such a difficult experience. “In many cases, just being able to talk out the experience with a friend or family member can be enough to ease the anxiety and in other cases, talking with a professional can make all the difference,” he wrote. He noted that First Call, a local crisis support and referral agency is aware of what happened in South Burlington and they stand ready to support families and students. They can be reached 24 hours a day at 802-488-7777.
Young says that when students and staff return to school next week, supports will be in place, along with the already present community building opportunities that “will serve to foster a sense of belonging and trust and inspire kindness and compassion.”
As a community, we can all benefit from this vision to move beyond the turmoil in a meaningful way. “It is time for our community to heal,” Young said in an April 22 statement, “This will be an ongoing process that will require a unified effort. We invite you to join us.”