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Vermont State Police say reported school shootings appear to be hoaxes

Woman with short brown hair speaks at podium with other state officials
Peter Hirschfeld
/
Vermont Public
Vermont Commissioner of Public Safety Jennifer Morrison speaks at a press conference regarding hoax school shooting calls across the state on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023 in Montpelier.

This post was updated as of 2:30 p.m.

Multiple law enforcement agencies across Vermont received fake reports of school shootings this morning, according to Vermont State Police.

Commissioner of Public Safety Jennifer Morrison said that between 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., 21 law enforcement agencies across the state received calls reporting active shooter situations at nearby schools.

Based on the volume of the calls and the similarity of their messages, Morrison said public safety officials quickly determined they were part of a coordinated hoax, sometimes known as “swatting.”

“Swatting is the false reporting of an ongoing emergency or threat of violence intended to prompt an immediate and or large response from law enforcement and other first responders,” Morrison said.

At a Statehouse press conference with lawmakers, public safety personnel and education officials, Gov. Phil Scott condemned the incidents as “an act of terrorism, designed to create chaos and stoke fear that can be exploited.”

Dozens of police cruisers arrived at Montpelier High School Wednesday morning after a call reporting an active shooter came into the city’s local dispatch center. Groups of students watched from the outskirts of the campus as law enforcement teams conducted multiple sweeps of the building inside.

Similar scenes played out at 20 other schools across the state Wednesday morning.

Col. Matthew Birmingham, director of the Vermont State Police, said law enforcement agencies mounted substantial responses to the reports of active shootings even after his agency learned they were part of a hoax.

“It doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility to respond to all these sites, which we did,” he said.

Birmingham said the Federal Bureau of Investigation is now part of the investigation into the origin of the hoax calls. While that investigation is still in its infancy, he said previous swatting events in other parts of the U.S. often originate outside the country.

“A lot of these swatting events … do originate historically from foreign countries, and they are difficult to track at times,” Birmingham said. “But we’re working closely with our federal partners at the FBI and we will do everything in our power to identify who was responsible for these calls.”

Calls likely violated terrorism laws

Morrison said she had yet to listen the hoax calls herself but had been briefed on their contents.

“There are very similar messages and they are possibly technologically created messages that are being shared to all of these different agencies,” she said.

One call, according to Morrison, reported that two students had been shot. The others, she said, reported the presence of an active shooter in a school.

Scott said some hospitals had already begun preparing for casualties after hearing initial reports about active shooters in schools.

Morrison said the conduct perpetrated by whoever made the calls Wednesday likely violates numerous state and federal terrorism laws.

“If the assumption that these are swatting calls are true, this is terrorism to invoke fear and chaos in a community,” Morrison said. “So I can think of no other motivation than some depraved person or entity perpetrates these calls to upset communities and create havoc.”

Public safety officials say it’s the first time K-12 schools in Vermont have been targeted by an alleged swatter. Last August, at least three post-secondary institutions in Vermont received coordinated bomb threats in what authorities later said was part of a large-scale national swatting incident.

Officials said the swatting calls Wednesday appear to be confined to Vermont; schools in Maine and New Hampshire, they said, have experienced swatting incidents in recent months.

The impact of swatting on Vermont communities

Rob Evans, who represents the Agency of Education at the Vermont School Safety Center, said the fact that there were no actual shootings on Wednesday does not mean there weren’t victims of a crime.

“And what’s scary is not only the initial that comes in ... but the unintended consequences with a large number of emergency first response resources that are responding to a scene of a potentially violent incident like this, and all of those stressors that come to that community when those resources are deployed,” he said.

The Agency of Education said mental health resources will be deployed to schools affected by Wednesday’s incidents.

“I think what we really need to be most concerned with is, What does this do to the sense of safety and security for our students, our staff, our parent community?” Morrison said. “What does this do to the social contract?”

Schools affected

Alburgh Community Education Center, Alburgh

Arlington Memorial High School, Arlington

Brattleboro High School, Brattleboro

Christ the King High School, Rutland

Colchester High School, Colchester

Enosburg High School, Enosburg

Essex High School, Essex

Fair Haven High School, Fair Haven

Grace Christian School, Bennington

Middlebury Union High School, Middlebury

Milton High School, Milton

Missisquoi Valley Union High School, Highgate

Montpelier High School, Montpelier

Newport City Elementary School, Newport

North Country Union High School, Newport

North Country Union Junior High School, Derby

Otter Valley Union High School, Brandon

Randolph Union High School, Randolph

Rice Memorial High School, South Burlington

St. Albans City Elementary School, St. Albans

United Christian Academy, Newport

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Corrected: February 8, 2023 at 7:07 PM EST
This post has been updated with the correct spellings and locations for North Country Union High School and North Country Union Junior High School.
The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
Liam is Vermont Public’s public safety reporter, focusing on law enforcement, courts and the prison system.