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September 02, 2013

Gun Play Across from a Burlington Elementary School? It's Legal in Vermont.

Spring st 006Police have responded 29 times in the past year to incidents on the single block of Spring Street opposite the Integrated Arts Academy at H.O. Wheeler in Burlington's Old North End.

Principal Bobby Riley insists both the school and the neighborhood are safe, but Jeff Sherman, a resident of one of the units in the 69-85 block of Spring Street, describes conditions there as "pretty bad." The sense of danger has grown in the 12 years he's lived there, Sherman says.

In February 2011, a domestic assault spilled onto the street in front of the elementary school, whereupon a man fired a shot that didn't hurt anyone. The students were on vacation that week, but Wheeler went into lockdown to protect the staff inside.

On the same block this past March, city cops, state troopers and federal agents raided a home just before dawn and charged its occupants with selling heroin and cocaine. In July, a police officer was allegedly assaulted after responding to reports of BB guns being fired; and last week a man was seen waving a gun in the street, sending the pre-K-5 school back into "modified lockdown" 24 hours before the first day of school.

In the latest incident, a charge of disorderly conduct was filed against a 23-year-old man said to have been menacing passing cars with what was later found to be a BB rifle. Displaying a gun in this way — even in proximity to a school — does not constitute an offense under Vermont law unless a specific person complains of feeling endangered, says Burlington Police Chief Mike Schirling.

The law "needs an update, in our estimation, and has been on our legislative list for some time," Schirling notes.

The chief suggested earlier this year that the city council should consider enabling officers to seize an unconcealed gun from a suspicious individual who appears to be heading for a school. Rachel Siegel, chair of a city council committee considering local gun-control measures, said in an interview on Saturday that Schirling's proposal "sounds like something I would support."

Last December's Newtown massacre — in which a lone shooter gunned down 26 educators and students at an elementary school in Connecticut — is what prompted the Burlington City Council to begin discussing local limits on guns. Siegel's panel is formulating a set of restrictions that may be presented to Burlington voters next March as a first step toward requisite changes in the city charter.

In an interview on the first day of the school year, Principal Riley downplayed the circumstances that have prompted extensive police activity on a block 20 yards from the arts academy.

"The Old North End has a skewed reputation," Riley said. "While it's unfortunate that incidents have occurred so close to the building, in none of these incidents were students or staff at this school in any danger."

He added that he has never considered moving his own daughter from the arts academy to another school. Several other parents are also powerfully attracted to the magnet school. Riley notes that 19 children have transferred to the arts academy during the past two years and that almost half of its current set of 43 kindergartners come from neighborhoods outside the Old North End.

During a "modified lockdown," such as the one during last week's gun-waving incident, no one is permitted to enter or leave the building, but students and staff are permitted to circulate in the interior — with the proviso that they stay away from windows, Riley explains. In a full lockdown, teachers are instructed to keep their students in classrooms, which are then locked from the inside.

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