Let’s start by saying the Tisbury Police absolutely did the right thing when the department investigated a possible “threat” made against Tisbury School by crossing guard Stephen Nichols. These days, when there have been so many school shootings, it’s important to be vigilant.
From that point on, though, it’s tough to find much that was done right. There were missteps and there was miscommunication — or no communication — all along the way.
The alleged “threat” was made on Wednesday, Sept. 18. The person who heard it was not the first person to report it to the police. Instead, it was reported by her husband two days after she allegedly heard Nichols use the phrase “shoot up the school” inside an Oak Bluffs restaurant where she was working. If she really thought it was a threat, why would she wait two full days to get police involved?
The comment, according to Nichols, was made in the context of school resource officer Scott Ogden. In a conversation at the restaurant, Nichols told The Times, he told another man he feared someone could go in and “shoot up the school” because Ogden “left his post” every day to go to XtraMart, a convenience store and gas station in Vineyard Haven.
To Nichols, a veteran, it was akin to a soldier letting down his guard. But as selectman Jim Rogers rightly pointed out at a selectmen’s meeting that came well into the public fury, Nichols’ and the public’s perception of a school resource officer was skewed. Ogden isn’t an armed security guard for the school. He’s there as a resource, part of the police department’s commitment to community policing. It would have been a good thing to bring up from the beginning. Unfortunately, the town clammed up, saying there was nothing that could be said or released, citing the personnel exemption in public records law. Hopefully, what Tisbury has learned is that doesn’t stop others from filling in the narrative, and in some cases it can be completely wrong.
There’s no reason why Police Chief Mark Saloio or school Principal John Custer couldn’t put into context what a school resource officer’s responsibilities are. Given two opportunities before the story was published, Saloio declined to answer questions or release documents, citing the “personnel” exemption, and Custer simply said he had not had any complaints from the public about Ogden.
By pulling Nichols from his duties as a crossing guard while he was performing them, police added to the bad optics of the situation. They could have watched Nichols closely, let him finish for the day, and then questioned the 84-year-old man.
Unlike online commenters from across the country, we don’t pretend to know what happened next. During questioning at his home, Nichols surrendered his guns and his firearms license to Saloio. We only have Nichols’ account of this exchange, because of the town of Tisbury’s decision to release no information. We understand following a lawyer’s advice, but rarely does a lawyer have to live with the consequences. In this case, those consequences have been a tarnishing of the chief’s and department’s reputations, and a perception that Nichols wasn’t provided due process.
Perhaps the worst mistake in all of this was how the town initially reacted when it became public that Nichols had been removed from his job. That blame falls squarely on the shoulders of town administrator Jay Grande. When asked about Nichols, Grande issued a brief statement acknowledging that a crossing guard had been removed from his duties and his job was under review. There was nothing about the department taking appropriate action to investigate a threat.
Compounding the lack of information to the public, the town’s board of selectmen were kept in the dark by Grande about a subject that was about to go viral and make them all look bad.
We could clearly see what the public perception was going to be here — a veteran of the U.S. Army during the Korean War, a longtime police officer, and a respected member of the community was mistreated in the eyes of the public. The story took on a life of its own, being passed around on social media like the hottest of hot potatoes. (Things got so bad on the Tisbury Police Facebook page that they suspended it temporarily.) It also resulted in a petition drive that quickly picked up steam.
We do give Grande and Saloio credit for recognizing the public outcry and speeding up their “review” of Nichols. They met with him on Columbus Day, and returned him to his job that Tuesday morning. That was an important first step in the right direction.
But the town missed an opportunity that day. They could have said they were deeply sorry for how they handled the Nichols situation. Instead, they circled the wagons at a board of selectmen’s meeting and went on the defensive.
Town leaders have said that the town has to do better with both internal and external communications, and on Saturday the board met in a workshop setting to begin those discussions. Let’s hope they got the message.