Wednesday January 30, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- An increase in medication and whirlwind of emotions that came to a head the morning of Dec. 31 led to a very public hypomanic episode, according to Steven Davis, whose recent Internet posts both captivated and alarmed the community.

Hypomania, according to Harvard Medical School, is "usually described as a mood state or energy level that is elevated above normal, but not so extreme as to cause impairment."

Davis, who later that day was admitted to the hospital and later transferred to a psychiatric care facility, was released Jan. 22 after mental health evaluators determined he is not a safety risk and is in good mental health.

Significant safety concerns were raised in the community when news that a AR-15 Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle and two 30-round high capacity magazines were surrendered by the Mount Anthony Union High School teacher in the midst of an apparent breakdown. The events initiated additional safety precautions at area schools, where no trespass orders were filed against Davis.

Davis said he was able to reflect on his Internet posts criticizing co-workers, the teachers union, administrators and other topics during his three weeks in the state's mental health system. In an interview since his release, Davis said he never had any intent, nor had it crossed his mind, to turn the gun on any person, however, he understands the reaction from the community.

"By connecting all the dots and putting the AR-15 in my possession, 100 percent it was crystal clear to me very shortly afterward, not even (after) a 24-hour period, exactly how it looked," Davis said. "I take full responsibility for the frightening nature of those videos. I ask that, at least the consideration for my forgiveness one day can be made for the fear and harm and other things I may have caused this community, and especially my students and their families and my own family."

Safety concerns

The incident on Dec. 31 took place just two weeks after the massacre in Newtown, Conn., in which 26 people -- including 20 children ages 6 and 7 -- were gunned down in a school by a man with the same model Bushmaster AR-15 rifle Davis owned. With that tragedy fresh on everyone's mind, Davis said the reaction from the community was justifiable.

"It's an overabundance of caution, which is totally reasonable and I 100 percent respect what initially occurred to me. That was the right thing to do. If I lived in this community and I saw those videos and I knew that that man was a teacher and that he at some point also owned a rifle, I would want him to be medically evaluated immediately. As a parent, heck yeah, check him out. Definitely," Davis said.

However, Davis said he also hopes the events do not define who he is in some people's eyes.

"We need to be careful as a society, especially with our mental health laws, that we don't get wrapped up in ... a witch hunt where we easily demonize in the media good people and then leave it at that," Davis said.

"(I) never did hurt anybody, and never will hurt anybody. I'm not that person," he said.

The events began on a public platform the evening of Dec. 30 when police were called to Davis' home to do a welfare check after a neighbor spotted Davis carrying the rifle to his vehicle.

Shortly before that, Davis said, for personal reasons he made the decision to rent a storage unit to store his belongings as he left his home, at least on a temporary basis.

"Upon loading everything into my car, the last thing to load was my AR-15 Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle that I had purchased in 2009," Davis said.

Davis said he kept the gun a secret from his wife so as not to upset her and kept it stored in a case with a trigger lock in the basement. On the evening of Dec. 30 his wife and children stayed with family and the following morning Davis was served a temporary relief from abuse order filed by his wife. The order states Davis had been acting erratically and his wife was concerned for the safety of her family. Receiving the order, Davis said, was "incredibly difficult emotionally," and left him with a feeling of abandonment that was the final wave of emotion that triggered the ensuing events.

"To hear the terms abuse -- as a loving and caring father, teacher, husband -- is quite heartbreaking and very stressful," he said.

In addition to the rash of emotion, Davis said the psychiatric evaluation he underwent determined the hypomanic episode was "brought on, most likely, by over medication," Davis said.

Last spring Davis said he was prescribed antidepressants Zoloft and Wellbutrin, but Davis said he still was not feeling right so he was later prescribed methylphenidate, a drug to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"I continued with the treatment and the doses were upped, and upped once more. By October I was taking all three medications with the full dose of each," he said.

Twenty-three days hospitalized

When Davis began posting to social media it quickly caught the attention of friends, neighbors, and others in the community. The messages and videos were uploaded to his own Facebook page, where he said he had 8,000 "friends," to his YouTube channel, to Twitter where he claimed to have in the ballpark of 300,000 followers, as well as to other websites including the Banner's Facebook page.

"When I did put the videos online they spread very, very quickly," Davis said.

None of the comments Davis made were direct threats so he was not charged with a crime. However there were ambiguous comments, including references to having read CIA manuals and being versed in military tactics, that caused alarm. Davis explained he had been reading about business models and corporate tactics to promote a new business venture he was starting and did not intend to insinuate he was planning to go on a shooting spree. "It was more of a rant. A very poorly delivered rant," Davis said.

Phone calls to the Bennington Police Department began pouring in shortly after the first couple videos were posted. After viewing the videos himself, Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette asked Davis to come to the police station to talk.

During that conversation Doucette said he became concerned with some of the statements Davis was making and asked Davis to undergo a mental health evaluation. Davis voluntarily went to Southwestern Vermont Medical Center to be evaluated, but said when he refused a blood sample the decision was made to hold him involuntarily. Davis said he was kept at SVMC five days before being transferred to Green Mountain Psychiatric Care Center in Morrisville, where he stayed until Jan. 22.

At the newly opened psychiatric center Davis said he underwent evaluations and was prescribed a different medication. "One of the reasons why you stay is to make sure you are taking it and that you're tolerating it well. They do blood checks to see what the levels are like in your blood until its at a therapeutic level," Davis said.

While in treatment Davis had limited contact with the outside world but said he was made aware of the outpouring of support from current and former students who posted encouraging messages on social media.

"My students left no teacher behind, and I thought that was great. The support from the students that I finally got word of, that's what really helped me get through it," Davis said.

Davis was cleared to leave Jan. 22. "I left the institution with a clear bill of health," he said. "They would not have let me out if they felt I was dangerous. I'm not dangerous."

Looking forward

Davis purchased the semi-automatic rifle model more than three years ago as an interest and because of its similarity to the rifle he became familiar with in ROTC at Vanderbilt University. "I learned how to take apart, clean, and put together the M16A2 with my eyes closed. So when I decided it was time for me to purchase a rifle, legally ... I chose the M16A2 kind of analog, the AR-15 Bushmaster," he said.

Davis told Doucette he had no desire to take the gun back after surrendering the AR-15 to police on Dec. 31. Davis also said he has no intent to own another gun in the foreseeable future .

"I'm not going to give up my second amendment right, but for a long time now I'm not going out and purchasing a firearm. That would be ridiculous," he said.

Since being released Davis has lived out of a hotel in a Troy, N.Y. However, he was charged with trespassing and violating the abuse prevention order on Monday for allegedly entering the house he and his wife share. Davis pleaded not guilty to the charges and was released on condition he abide by a 24-7 curfew at the hotel.

For the remainder of the school year Davis is on medical leave from the position he has held the past nine years teaching science and math -- which he requested prior to the Dec. 31 episode. He is trying not to think too far ahead regarding whether he will return to teaching.

"Part of the treatment was to talk about (how) you've got to take it slowly. You've got to take it step by step ... it's a long process," Davis said. "I'm on medical leave until the end of the year so I have plenty of time to get healthy, and then I will certainly re-evaluate as one of my top choices of whether I want to return as a teacher."

"I just need to be the best dad I can, be the best husband, the best educator, the best person I can right now," he said.

Editor's note: Staff Writer Dawson Raspuzzi was contracted by Steven Davis to write a single freelance piece prior to writing any stories about him for the Banner.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi