School safety bill fails after chambers cannot agree on provision

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A bill with a provision inspired by a what police say was a foiled school shooting plot in Fair Haven didn't make it out of the Legislature this session.

It's unclear if the bill can, or will be, revived in a special legislative session where the budget and tax bills approved during a marathon session Saturday are expected to be taken up following the certain vetoes of them by Gov. Phil Scott.

The school safety bill, H.675, has been traveling back and forth between the two chambers and landed in the Senate on Saturday, following action in the House a day earlier.

The House approved the legislation Friday, but the Senate on Saturday afternoon passed a slightly revised version. That version included a provision that had been stripped out of the bill by the House.

The legislation never made it to the House floor Saturday, the session's finale, to consider the latest Senate version of the bill.

The House would have had to suspend the rules to take it up on the floor. The bill was never brought to the floor for consideration for a vote on whether to suspend those rules, which would have required a three-quarters majority vote.

Earlier Saturday, GOP leaders said during a caucus that they would promisie to suspend rules to bring certain proposals to the House floor.

In approving the legislation Saturday, the Senate voted unanimously to amend the state's criminal threatening code to specifically criminalize threats regarding school shootings or explosions, resulting in a felony charge and carrying a maximum penalty of up to three years in jail.

A similar measure, which included a slightly stiffer penalty, was removed in a version of the bill passed by the House on Friday.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke on the Senate floor Saturday in favor of adding the criminal threatening language back into the bill.

He noted that in the House, that chamber added a separate provision to the legislation that forbids sexual conduct between a law enforcement officer and an individual being held in custody by that officer or another officer.

Sears said Saturday that added provision is similar to a law that forbids sexual conduct between correctional officers and prisoners.

He said while the House decided to add that provision to the bill, they took another one out, referring to the criminal threatening language.

The senator said that the threatening provision was included in the bill following the arrest in mid-January of 18-year-old Jack Sawyer of Poultney, accused of plotting to shoot up his former high school in Fair Haven.

"I'm surprised the other body did not agree to this provision," Sears said.

Felony charges that had been brought against Sawyer, including three counts of attempted murder, didn't stick following a Vermont Supreme Court ruling that dealt a blow to the prosecutor's case. That ruling said that merely planning a crime did not rise to the level of an attempt, citing 100 years of case law in Vermont.

The criminal threatening language in H.675 was included to give prosecutors additional options when bringing charges in such cases, Sears said. Any change in the law wouldn't retroactively apply to Sawyer's case.

Rep. Chip Conquest, D-Wells River, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, told VTDigger in an interview Friday that the panel felt that the proposed change to Vermont's criminal threat laws was too broad. He said that members believed such a change needed to "connect the intent with the action a little more closely than that bill seemed to."

Conquest also talked of other legislation passed earlier in the session in response to the Sawyer. He pointed to new gun restrictions as well as a domestic terrorism statute that criminalizes steps taken to plan a mass attack.

Under the latest criminal threatening provision proposed by the Senate, a person shall not "by words or conduct" knowingly threaten to use a firearm or explosive device to harm another person in a school building, on school property or "in an institution of higher education." The maximum penalty for criminal threatening is three years in prison.

Conquest said he could "stomach" the change and a couple other members of the panel appeared to be in agreement. The full panel wasn't at the meeting and no votes were taken.

"I think we're all aware that the entire bill could die today — and if it did it did," Sears said on the Senate floor before voting to amend it again and send it back to the House for consideration. "But this is our effort to continue to try to do what we can" to address school safety.

Youth restorative justice provision

The bill also asked the Agency of Education to develop guidelines for restorative justice techniques that can be used in schools as a way to ensure non-discriminatory disciplinary action and to reduce suspension and expulsion. The bill also provides $250,000 for the Agency to administer grants to fund development of restorative justice programs in interested schools.

The bill did not require schools to implement restorative justice programs.

Martha Allen, president of Vermont-NEA, said in an interview Friday that the teachers' union agrees restorative justice should not be mandatory for schools because "there are going to be schools that don't have the capacity to do it properly."

"If it's not done well, we are concerned that the victim could be harmed because restorative justice often involves the victim," said Allen.

Jay Nichols, Executive Director of the Vermont Principals' Association, said the $250,000 would have provided "seed money" for schools interested in exploring restorative justice, but would not have been enough to fund restorative justice efforts in schools around the state. Nichols said that a principal and multiple teachers at a Bakersfield school had undergone 150 hours of training each before developing a restorative justice program at their school.

H.675 has been significantly altered since its introduction by House in January. Originally focused on strengthening pretrial release conditions, the bill morphed into a school safety bill.

Elizabeth Gribkoff contributed to this report.


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