|John Odgren was indicted on murder charges.|
Student said to show a knife to therapist
Police: Teen carried items before Sudbury stabbing
A Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School sophomore who is accused of stabbing a classmate to death in January brought a pocketknife and fake handgun to school on separate occasions last fall and did not face disciplinary action, despite showing the items to a psychologist at the school, the Sudbury police chief said yesterday.
In both cases, the psychologist confiscated the items from John Odgren, 16, but returned them to the boy by the end of the school day, according to Sudbury Police Chief Peter Fadgen .
Fadgen said he believes that John M. Ritchie, who is both the principal of the high school and superintendent of the regional school district, was not told of either incident, but that the psychologist did report the information to his supervisor. The chief declined to name the psychologist and said he did not know whether the psychologist was employed by the school district or another agency.
Fadgen said that under state law, the school is required to report children who bring weapons to school to local police. "I was alarmed that even a folding knife . . . was taken and then given back to him at the end of the day," Fadgen said. "I thought it was an improper way to handle it."
Ritchie did not return phone calls to his office yesterday. But in an e-mail to parents late yesterday afternoon, he said that on Monday "it became clear to me that there was some substance to this allegation" about the knife and toy gun.
"We are investigating this matter thoroughly and will report as completely as possible as soon as we are able to do so," he said in the e-mail.
A Lincoln-Sudbury School Committee member, Jack Ryan, said yesterday that Ritchie notified the panel in a closed session this week that he had learned about a week earlier that Odgren had brought a pocketknife to school last year.
Ryan said Ritchie told the committee that he and other top school officials are investigating why they were not told last fall of Odgren's confiscated items. School policy requires that a student found with a weapon face a disciplinary hearing.
"Obviously, incidents like that should be reported," Ryan said. ". . . We have to find out what the circumstances were."
Odgren was indicted Thursday on first-degree murder charges in the fatal Jan. 19 stabbing of freshman James Alenson, 15, in a school bathroom. Odgren is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday.
The Middlesex district attorney's office declined to comment on Odgren's alleged past possession of a weapon, saying prosecutors will disclose additional details of the case at the arraignment.
Odgren's lawyer, Jonathan Shapiro, also said he could not comment because he has not yet been given the details of the prosecution's case.
The disclosures about the knife and fake gun raise questions about the school's culpability in a killing that rocked this suburban high school. But students' private talks with school psychologists are sometimes considered privileged and confidential, unless they are deemed an imminent threat to safety. Fadgen said the psychologist told his investigators Odgren did not make any threats when he showed the items.
Also, Odgren was technically a student of the Concord Area Special Education Collaborative, a separate program that placed him at Lincoln-Sudbury. It is unclear whether school policy requires that troubling behavior by a student in an independent program within the school be reported to the school superintendent or only to the head of the program.
Edward Orenstein, executive director of the special education collaborative, did not return phone calls yesterday.
Lincoln-Sudbury school officials have described Odgren as quirky, but said he never exhibited threatening behavior at Lincoln-Sudbury or his previous schools, at least four others in five years. Odgren was a special needs student with Asperger's disorder, a mild form of autism.
A state report, however, said he had several outbursts in seventh grade. Some Lincoln-Sudbury students have said that Odgren talked openly about weapons and violence and that he was taunted by other students.
After the stabbing, Ritchie told parents the school had a zero-tolerance policy for weapons of any kind.
"A student who is found with a weapon in school can be, by state law, expelled by the school principal," Ritchie wrote in a Feb. 7 memo to parents. "We take this violation extremely seriously, and even in cases where common sense would indicate that, for example, a student had a Swiss Army knife because he forgot to take it out of his pocket, we hold a formal expulsion hearing."
The memo also said school officials would expel any student who posed a threat. Ritchie said this happened "only once in my 10 years here."
"What typically happens is that it is determined that the student was guilty of very poor judgment," he continued. "In those cases, the student is suspended from school for three weeks."
Fadgen said that one day in late September, Odgren came to school and asked a clinical psychologist what would happen "if somebody brought something to school that he wasn't supposed to."
Odgren then pulled from his pocket a folding knife, slightly bigger than a Swiss Army knife, the chief said. When the psychologist asked for it, Odgren gave it to him and told him he had brought it by mistake.
The psychologist told investigators he put the knife in an envelope and returned it to Odgren at the end of the school day, Fadgen said.
A few weeks later, the chief said, Odgren showed a fake pistol to the same psychologist and told him it was a prop for drama class. The psychologist took the fake gun, then returned it to Odgren at the end of the day and told him not to bring it to school again.
Lawyers who have represented school boards say the Lincoln-Sudbury system faces potential liability if the administration knew, through staff, that Odgren was a danger but failed to do anything about it. However, the lawyers said, the fact that the student told a psychologist clouds the matter. Psychologists can keep such disclosures private, to encourage a therapeutic relationship, as long as the information does not pose an imminent threat to the patient or others, said Raipher Pellegrino, a lawyer who practices in Boston and Springfield.
Patricia Wen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.