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The threats were fake, but for Maine schools impacted by 'swatting,' the fear was lasting

school shooting hoax.PNG
Troy R. Bennett
/
BDN
Students hug and laugh with relief outside Portland High School in November, after a hoax active shooter incident.

Nov. 15 started like any other for Kristen DeForge, until she got a text that morning from her daughter, Jenna, a senior at Sanford High School.

"Jenna said, 'Mom, there’s a shooter in the high school and I’m locked in my classroom.' And I think I went into panic mode," DeForge said.

Images of school shootings from other parts of the country flashed through her mind. And as she rushed out the door, DeForge said she also thought about places like Uvalde, Texas, where police hesitated to enter the school building.

"I really did think about that," she said. "Do I get my gun and bring that with me in case I get there, and they're not responding to save my child?"

As she arrived at Sanford High School and Regional Technical Center, nearly a dozen law enforcement agencies came to the scene. Three air ambulances were on standby, Sanford police have said. Area hospitals closed their emergency rooms, preparing for the worst.

The community didn't know it at the time, but Sanford was one of 10 schools in Maine that day that received false reports about an active shooter. These incidents are called, "swatting," and they're designed to set off a massive, armed police response to a specific location.

'I knew right then it was serious'

At about 8:30 a.m., dispatchers received a similar call about an apparent active shooter at Portland High School. Students there were in the middle of changing classes when a lockdown was called.

Special education teacher Michael Brown said he couldn’t quite hear the announcement, but knew something was wrong.

"A few of my advisory students were sprinting down the hall with such a stressful look on their face and fear," he said. "And other teachers had come down from the first floor where they had witnessed the police come into the building and were just pushing kids into classrooms. And I knew right then it was serious."

More than 35 police officers swept the school, entering each classroom. Senior Eliza Stein was ushered into an office with a few others. They were checking social media posts on their phones, she said, and soon realized that Portland wasn't the only school that had been locked down.

"Pretty quick we figured out how to download the police app, and we were listening to the police radio," Stein said. "We were listening to the one in Sanford in live time. And we were all just silent."

But there was no shooter in Portland, Sanford, or any of the eight other schools in Maine that received similar calls that morning.

And nearly an hour after the start of the lockdown at Sanford High School, administrators told Kristen DeForge and the other parents gathered outside that the shooter didn't exist. It was all a hoax. At first, they didn't believe it.

"I was standing with a group of other moms and we just kind of looked at each other and we were like, this isn’t a hoax. Look at the response," she said.

Schools bombarded with fake threats this fall

There have been at least 246 false reports of violence in schools around the country so far during this school year, according to the Educator's School Safety Network, a nonprofit that tracks those incidents and provides training for teachers and law enforcement.

That's nearly a 600% increase in the last four years, said Amy Klinger of the Educator's School Safety Network.

"You can create chaos. You can undermine the institution. You can make people not trust the school, not want to send their kids to school, be afraid," she said. "People do it because it works. It clearly works."

Beyond the immediate impact of these incidents on a school, they can also have ripple effects in their communities. That includes tying up public safety workers who could be responding to other emergencies, according to Noel March, a career police chief and director of the Maine Community Policing Institute at the University of Maine at Augusta,

"So you can see the chaos of not just the fear of confusion, and the anxiety that is visited upon a community, but also trying to manage the logistics of the resources themselves," March said. It's "incredibly expensive and it's incredibly dangerous, because there are others who may need real help who won't be able to get it in real time."

At Sanford High School, the experience has had a lingering impact on Kristen DeForge and her daughter. It took Jenna three days to acknowledge that the active shooter didn’t exist, DeForge said.

"She saw police with assault rifles," she said. "She was led out of her classroom with her hands on her head. Everything that she saw, felt and smelled — and every experience she had that day — led her to believe there was a shooter in the school that day."

But DeForge said the experience has also put to rest her fears about the police response, fears that initially made her think about grabbing a gun as she rushed to the school.

"I have no doubt in my mind that they are going to protect my child," she said. "The response from the police around here was like nothing I have ever seen in my life. They did not hesitate."

For Portland teacher Michael Brown, it'll take time to shake the image of students and teachers sprinting down the hallway in fear.

"I re-live that a lot, I'm not going to lie," he said. "Education is at an unprecedented state when we have to now deal with this."

Swatting incidents have been a wake-up call for some schools, prompting them to revisit their safety plans.

Sanford officials said they're revisiting training, and they're reconsidering how and when they communicate with students and parents.

In hindsight, Superintendent Matt Nelson said the district should have communicated earlier that it believed the threat was fake.

"Probably ten minutes into the incident we had a pretty good idea that this was not credible," he said. "But it was not confirmed at that time, and as I waited for that confirmation, time went off, and then what you had were other rumors and things via social media."

In Portland, principal Sheila Jepson said the school is reconsidering where students lock down in the classrooms. And while Jepson was able to provide updates over the school's intercom throughout the three-hour lockdown, she said administrators are discussing plans in the event that kind of communication isn't possible.

Students and teachers said they’re proud of how Portland High School responded, but the experience has also revived a debate over whether the district should bring back the school’s resource officer, a position that was eliminated a few years ago.

Both the FBI and local authorities are trying to determine who's responsible and whether there's a pattern or connection between swatting events in Maine, New Hampshire and other states. In the meantime, authorities warn these incidents have become so prevalent, that all schools should prepare for one.

Robbie Feinberg contributed reporting this story.