A Tisbury School crossing guard who had been relieved of duty and had his personal firearms confiscated for alleged threats to the Tisbury School was reinstated to his position on Columbus Day morning. Stephen Nichols was pulled from his post Sept. 20 after a waitress at Linda Jean’s Restaurant allegedly overheard Nichols make threats to the school two days earlier. Nichols has staunchly denied he threatened the school, and said he was pointing out what he deemed a hole in school security.
Nichols’ ouster and the seizure of his firearms generated social media activity never before seen on Martha’s Vineyard Times webpages, including links on gun activist and law enforcement pages, and tens of thousands of Facebook hits. On the same day Nichols was reinstated, an online petition circulated demanding Nichols be allowed to return to his crossing guard duties.
Stephen Nichols, 84, of Tisbury, who said his career with the Tisbury Police spanned six decades and he served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War as a Morse code specialist, told The Times he had criticized Tisbury School Resource Officer Scott Ogden in a conversation with a friend. He said the conversation was taken out of context. That conversation allegedly occurred Sept. 18, and was reported on Sept. 20, the same day Nichols was relieved, according to police.
On Oct. 15, Nichols returned to his twice-daily post at the crosswalk on the corner of Spring and Pine Streets by the office of the Martha’s Vineyard superintendent of schools. Numerous motorists waved, beeped, or gave Nichols the thumbs-up as they passed. As students began to trickle down the sidewalk, Nichols offered them Life Savers candies whether they crossed or continued walking on the sidewalk. A handful of staffers from the superintendent’s office came outside and watched Nichols perform his duties. Nichols told The Times he was glad to be back helping the students.
In a statement released Monday, Police Chief Mark Saloio, who was actively involved in the investigation of Nichols, said he was never fired, but his job was under review.
“The town, collectively, has expressed an outpouring of concern about Mr. Nichols, and his employment as a school crossing guard. We as well share those concerns. We wish to make you aware that today, Mr. Nichols was informed that he may return to his crossing guard duties tomorrow morning,” Saloio wrote in an email to The Times. “This return to work was always pending upon a final review that was in process. Throughout this period, Mr. Nichols has retained his position as a crossing guard for the town. However, these reviews are thorough and complete, and neither immediate nor instantaneous.”
Nichols had expressed concerns at Linda Jean’s that Ogden was leaving his post at the Tisbury School to go to XtraMart. The chief defended Ogden in his written statement.
“Please know that Officer Ogden performs his duties as the assigned school resource officer, for our elementary school, at a consistently high level. He continues to be dedicated and works hard, in partnership with all of the school staff, to keep our children safe every day,” Saloio wrote. “This department appreciates any and all concerns brought to our attention through the proper channels so that we may help and assist everyone in the best way possible.”
Dan Larkosh of the Edgartown firm Larkosh and Jackson represents Nichols. He said he is pleased Nichols was reinstated. Nevertheless, he intends to file an appeal of the decision by Tisbury Police Chief Mark Saloio to seize guns owned by Nichols, as well as his license to carry. Larkosh said his firm has received repeated offers to contribute to Nichols’ legal costs, including from some national organizations.
Saloio initially declined to comment when approached at the Tisbury Police Station. He later told The Times, “There’s nothing that I can legally discuss about the matter. Period.” The police department has also refused to release the police report from the investigation, citing the “personnel” exemption of the public records law.
Saloio’s comment about Nichols’ status doesn’t clearly match the crossing guard’s previously stated understanding of his status, nor how Tisbury town administrator Jay Grande responded when The Times asked if a crossing guard had been terminated. “In response to your inquiry, I want to acknowledge that a crossing guard was removed from active status pending a review of personnel-related concerns,” Grande wrote. “I will not have any further comment on this matter.”
At a selectmen’s meeting Tuesday, Saloio was backed and commended by the board, with the caveat there was room to refine some practices. Board chair Melinda Loberg specifically praised the chief’s handling of the situation. “We are very much in support of the work you’ve done recently, and the hard decisions you’ve had to make following police protocol to exercise your responsibilities as a police force,” she said. “The atmosphere has changed. We all need to get used to some new perspectives, some new requirements of the state, and I think the selectmen here are in full support of the work you do.”
“It’s important for everyone to remember those requirements protect everyone,” Saloio said.
Selectmen Jim Rogers and Jeff Kristal also offered support, both extending that support to Ogden, the school resource officer, brought up in the controversy.
“Out of every situation comes a learning opportunity. I think it’s important for us and the school committee to educate the public on just what a school resource officer is,” Rogers said. “There’s a lot of confusion on what a school resource officer does, and it’s not to act as an armed guard, unlike what popular opinion is.”
Later, Kristal suggested the board needs to improve internal and external communication. Selectmen knew nothing about the incident involving Nichols ahead on Friday’s initial story in The Times.
What led to crossing guard’s removal?
Nichols said he was unimpressed with Ogden’s alleged trips to XtraMart when children came to school in the morning. While dining at Linda Jean’s Sept. 18, Nichols said, he told a friend about this, and suggested somebody could “shoot up the school” in that officer’s absence, which he described as “leaving his post.”
Nichols said the waitress made a complaint to Tisbury Police about what she overheard, and on the strength of that, Saloio and another officer relieved Nichols of his crossing guard duties while he was in the midst of performing them, and subsequently drove to his home and took away his firearms license and guns.
“He came up and told me what I said was a felony, but he wasn’t going to charge me,” Nichols said of Saloio.
The confiscated guns were later turned over to Nichols’ son-in-law, Nichols told The Times.
Asked if he was given a letter or any paperwork for the seizure of his license, Nichols said, “No, he just told me to hand it over, so I took it out of my wallet and handed it to him.”
Nichols said he has been licensed for firearms since 1958.
A petition on the website change.org arose over Columbus Day Weekend seeking to reverse Nichols’ ouster. To do so, “Pamela Salt,” a Vineyard petitioner, according to the site, called on Tisbury selectmen Jeff Kristal, Jim Rogers, and chair Melinda Loberg, along with Tisbury School Principal John Custer, Martha’s Vineyard Superintendent of Schools Matt D’Andrea, town administrator Grande, and Chief Saloio.
“Please reinstate Mr. Nichols as a Tisbury School crossing guard so he can get back to his joy of helping the children get to and from school safely and with a smile,” the petition reads. “As a well-loved, retired, senior citizen, Mr. Nichols finds great happiness in this job, and we’re sure the children miss seeing him as much as he misses helping them! The entire situation appears to be a great misunderstanding, and with the restoration of his job and his LTC, Mr. Nichols (and our community) can put this terrible event behind him, and focus on moving past the trauma and embarrassment of these events. We stand with Mr. Nichols!”
As of 11 am on Columbus Day, the petition had garnered about 800 signatures out of a goal of 1,000.
At the same time the petition met that mark Columbus Day morning, Nichols met with Grande and Saloio at the Tisbury Police Station.
“All they were interested in was, Did I want my job back, and I said ‘yes,’” Nichols said.
Nichols described Grande and Saloio as being in “a very good mood,” but that they did not offer any detail as to why Nichols’ crossing guard job was being reinstated.
While Nichols said he doesn’t own a computer or cell phone and is therefore not directly privy to the online support he’s received, he said his daughters have kept him apprised of it.
Of the support he said, “I appreciate that, and I’m really, really happy that I have it.”
In a lengthy interview with The Times, Nichols explained his concern about Tisbury School.
“When I was in the U.S. Army, and it wasn’t just me, it’s anybody who’s in the U.S. service, if you are on guard duty for eight hours, you didn’t leave that position,” Nichols said. “And I’m just so accustomed to that, that when I see someone who’s supposed to be protecting kids … leave the school unguarded — if you’re on guard duty, you stay there.”
Tisbury School Principal John Custer told The Times he was familiar with Nichols as a crossing guard, but when asked if he knew of Nichols’ situation, Custer responded by saying crossing guards are “hired, trained, and scheduled entirely by the police department.”
Asked if anyone had complained about Ogden going on coffee breaks, Custer said, “None whatsoever.”
Ogden did not return a message seeking comment.
Linda Jean’s owner Marc Hanover said he’s known Nichols for decades, and vouched for his integrity. He described the situation as “absolutely outrageous.” He said he believes one of his servers “overreacted.” Hanover said he spoke with the restaurant patron who had conversed with Nichols at the time of the alleged threats.
“He assured me there was never a threat made,” Hanover said.
That patron, Edgartown resident Andy Marcus, described the situation as “absurd.” Marcus confirmed Nichols did not threaten the school, but pointed out that Nichols thought Ogden was having coffee at XtraMart and leaving the students potentially exposed. Marcus said he has known Nichols for years, and often talks with him at the counter of Linda Jean’s. He said nobody at that restaurant but one server holds the opinion Nichols possibly posed a threat to the Tisbury School. Marcus said in addition to being a longtime special police officer, Nichols was a court officer and a constable. “He loves kids,” Marcus said. “It’s almost like of all the people …”
Nichols said he’s never been accused of threatening a school, and never had a firearms violation. “I’ve got no record of any violations,” he said.
Nichols said he never carries guns outside the house, and would like to have his license and his guns back, but the fate of the guns may be sealed. “My grandson is manager of a gun shop in Worcester, and he’s going to be allowed to come down and take the weapons and sell them for me,” he said.
Nichols said he has 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. “I would never, ever, ever, harm a child,” he said.
Nichols lost his wife two years ago, and values his crossing guard work as a connection to the outside world. “I just need something to do to get out of the house, and I love the kids,” he previously said.
“We would expect reasonable minds to prevail, and [Nichols] to be reinstated in his job,” Larkosh said on Oct. 11. That expectation came true. Nichols said he’ll be “back with the kids I love.”
George Brennan contributed to this report.