Some teachers at South Portland High School say they are worried prosecutors and school administrators aren’t giving them enough information about an alleged threat to the school. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Note: The juvenile suspect in this story was found not guilty of solicitation for murder on July 16, 2024.

“Locks, lights, out of sight.”

South Portland High School teachers had been trained in the district’s lockdown protocol if faced with a threat. But that did little to stem the pulse of adrenaline they felt on Sept. 29 when word came to lock their doors, turn off their lights and move their students to the corner of the room, where they might be shielded if the worst were to happen.

For over an hour, teachers and students sat silently in the dark, checking their phones for updates from the world outside. Eventually, they learned that the “suspicious individual” police had arrested outside was a teenager with a replica airsoft gun. They said he wasn’t dangerous. But before teachers got the all-clear, it was hard not to wonder whether the threats that have loomed over the district since April were finally becoming reality.

Several high school teachers, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety and of losing their jobs, said last Friday’s lockdown was just the latest in a series of events that have rattled the community. Staff members say they are frustrated with what they see as the district’s lack of transparency about how it’s responding to the pending criminal charges against Tristan Hamilton, a 17-year-old student who prosecutors say tried to recruit another person to help kill students, teachers and staff.

“It’s unsettling,” one teacher said. “We’re all on edge.”

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Prosecutors and school administrators have countered that they’re hampered by what juvenile laws allow them to share.

‘NOTHING TO SEE HERE’

Though Hamilton’s identity was not made public until months after a SWAT team raided his home in April and seized several high-powered rifles, people around the high school say they knew it was him almost immediately. Multiple teachers said they weren’t surprised to learn he was the teenager who, according to South Portland police Chief Dan Ahern, had threatened to “cause serious harm to individuals and groups using specific weapons.”

Hamilton is a talented student, but he styles himself as an outsider within the fairly liberal district, some teachers said. He is known for making statements tinged with far-right rhetoric and for wearing an iron cross – a symbol worn by Nazi soldiers that has since been co-opted by both white supremacists and motorcycle groups. (He and his father both ride motorcycles.)

His father, Adam Hamilton, was somewhat notorious for a series of Islamophobic and transphobic Facebook posts that surfaced during a failed run for school board in 2021. Adam Hamilton, who later said the posts did not reflect his beliefs, was also arrested during the April raid and charged with trying to obstruct police from arresting him and his son.

Teachers say they were shaken when Ahern told News Center Maine that police had likely stopped a violent attack on the community. They hoped to learn more about what police believed Tristan Hamilton was planning at a pair of virtual meetings organized by Superintendent Tim Matheney a little more than a week after the raid.

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Instead, several teachers say, district leadership downplayed the threats in a way that seemed incongruent with Ahern’s statements. Matheney repeatedly said Hamilton had been charged with arson (for an unrelated incident, court records suggest) and that no one in the school had ever been in danger. But this didn’t make sense to many teachers – why the SWAT raid and the FBI involvement if there hadn’t been serious threats?

“He treated it as if people were just creating all these rumors and fearmongering and that we were making it all up,” one teacher said.

Teachers who spoke with the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram questioned why they hadn’t been alerted to a potential threat. If Hamilton was dangerous enough to arrest that Wednesday, was the school really safe on Monday and Tuesday when he had been in class? Others wanted a guarantee that he wouldn’t be allowed back in the building. They grew frustrated when Matheney did not provide specific answers.

“It was, ‘Absolutely nothing to see here,’ ” another teacher said. “You knew you were being lied to.”

UNSUPERVISED

Matheney said in a phone interview Thursday that his office has done as much as possible to keep staff informed, but even he doesn’t know much about the evidence against Hamilton because of laws that seal most information about juvenile cases.

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He said he does not know all of the conditions of Hamilton’s release but has been assured by police, prosecutors and District Judge Peter Darvin that the teenager is not currently a danger to the school. He said law enforcement is legally required to inform school districts if they believe a threat is imminent – a warning he said his office did not receive in April or any time since.

“I know the availability of information … has been frustrating to many of us,” Matheney said. “But at the very least, it has been our clear intention to listen as carefully and as openly to our staff members as possible.”

But without specific explanations about Hamilton’s charges, his release conditions and why authorities are so confident that he is not a threat, teachers say they and their students remain anxious – especially in the wake of several events last month. 

First was a report in the Press Herald that named Hamilton and listed a new set of charges prosecutors had filed against him: Class A criminal solicitation for murder and another count of arson, along with a lesser terrorizing charge. Students, faculty and staff were all listed as potential targets. It marked the first official confirmation that authorities believed Hamilton had been plotting an attack against the school.

Principal Scott Tombleson told staff in an email shared with the newspaper that he was “rattled” by the news. But teachers say that wording rang hollow after the district’s leadership spent the spring downplaying their concerns.

South Portland Superintendent Tim Matheney said his office has done as much as possible to keep staff informed, but even he doesn’t know much about the evidence against a student because of laws that seal most information about juvenile cases. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

At an emergency staff meeting the morning that word of the new charges broke, teachers said some staff members were visibly angry with Matheney and Tombleson, whom they saw as more interested in controlling a narrative than supporting teachers.

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“We’re about to go teach kids in an hour who’ve just read the word ‘murder’ in a headline,” one teacher remembered thinking. “I think we need to be able to talk about this on a human level.”

Tensions escalated again on Sept. 27 when Hamilton rode his motorcycle past a group of students who were walking outside for gym class, then circled back and tried to speak to a student at Red’s Dairy Freeze, according to several teachers who later learned of the incident. They said Hamilton quickly drove off after a teacher asked him to leave the group.

Mark Peltier, one of Hamilton’s attorneys, said the teenager had received an invitation to Red’s from a friend and he left when he realized she was with a group of students.

“As with so much of this case, what the public has been led to believe and what actually occurred are very far apart,” he said. “Unfortunately, this case has been subject to so much speculation and rumor. Tristan has never posed a risk to anyone, and that remains the case today.”

Yet word of the encounter quickly circulated among students and staff, many of whom had assumed the teenager would not be free to roam the streets during the school day. If he could go to Red’s, then what was stopping him from putting a hoodie on and sneaking into the school?

Several teachers say those thoughts were echoing through their heads as they sat in lockdown two days later. Police later said the student who was arrested during Sept. 29 lockdown had no connection to Hamilton.

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‘DOING OUR BEST’

Cumberland County District Attorney Jackie Sartoris has refused to share the exact conditions of Hamilton’s release.

She told a reporter last week that while she is free to share that information with the victims named in the case – all students, teachers and staff at South Portland High School, as well as parents of students under 18 – juvenile privacy laws prevent her from directly discussing it with other members of the public.

Yet that information has not been widely shared with the victims either. Teachers who spoke with the newspaper said the only hints they have about Hamilton’s release conditions have come in a few emails shared by the district.

Hours after the incident at Red’s, Matheney wrote in an email to staff that he and the district’s lawyer would lobby prosecutors to strengthen protections against Hamilton.

“As a district, we have a right to the kind of learning environment that you and our students deserve, and our attorneys will be pointedly arguing that tomorrow,” he wrote.

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A letter Sartoris sent to faculty, staff and students a day later specifies that Hamilton is barred from being on school property.

She wrote that her office pushed to have Hamilton detained at the Long Creek Youth Development Center, but a judge allowed his release. Sartoris said prosecutors would again argue for his detention, or at the least that he also be barred from going near the high school and contacting students, faculty and staff engaging in school activities outside of the grounds during school hours.

Sartoris said she sympathizes with frustrated school staff members and parents, but said Matheney and his team have themselves had little information about the specifics of the case from its inception. Prosecutors could not have provided any details any earlier without breaking privacy laws, which could put the outcome of the case at risk, she said.

“We’re all doing our best in a situation we did not create,” she said. “I perfectly understand that this is a source of tremendous frustration to the community. We just want to be super careful never to jeopardize the prospects of this case.”

Hamilton is expected to make his initial appearance in Portland Juvenile Court on Oct. 19 at 8:30 a.m. The hearing will be public, and prosecutors will ask the judge to allow remote access to the courtroom so that members of the school community who fear for their safety can attend without revealing their identities to the defendant.

Eventually, the evidence against Hamilton will be heard, Sartoris said.

In the meantime, South Portland teachers say they will continue to try to put on a brave face for students, even as they grapple with the fear that Matheney and Sartoris agree has become all too common in American classrooms.

“Not to be dramatic, but (teaching) is a lot on an easy day. Going and thinking you might die makes the day a little more difficult,” one teacher said. “But hey, learn your calculus. None of it adds up.”

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