Tuesday morning started like any other day at Sanford High School.
Students were in the gym and English class and talking with friends when less than an hour into the school day they were forced to barricade doors, turn off lights and huddle together in corners of darkened classrooms, hiding from a gunman who didn’t exist.
Across Maine, hundreds of students, teachers, parents and law enforcement were plunged into hours of terror and panic as schools were gripped by a series of false reports that claimed active shooters were targeting students.
While the state’s schools have been hit by shooting and bomb threats before, this was their first experience with swatting — when someone calls dispatchers to say an emergency requiring a law enforcement response is already happening, when it actually isn’t.
Swatting has been on the rise since schools have returned to mostly normal operations after pandemic-prompted shutdowns, and it’s designed to evoke chaos and a traumatic response, said Amy Klinger, co-founder of the Educator’s School Safety Network.
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“Really, there’s just been tons of them this fall, and they all kind of look similar,” Klinger said.
Swatting is distinct from a threat, because it prompts the same kind of response as a real shooting, she said.
“It is an attack where you are trying to create anxiety, fear and chaos,” she said.
Swatting incidents generally fall into three categories, Klinger said.
They can be random and, often, perpetrated by someone outside the state being targeted or even outside the U.S., she said.
The second category is calls that come from inside a school.
And the third category includes calls from those who legitimately believe there is an active shooter inside a school, Klinger said.
Based on details released by public safety and school officials on Tuesday, Klinger said it’s likely Maine’s swatting incidents fell into the first category.
“The most common is what we’re talking about where some external actor is calling the police,” she said. “Oftentimes it’s believed they are not even domestic calls. They are international calls just trying to create fear and hysteria.”
Unlike a series of threats Maine schools received a year ago, swatting incidents require a swift response rather than an investigation that determines whether a threat is credible or not. While no physical shooter is found at a school in a swatting incident, it can still inflict serious trauma, Klinger said.
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“There’s a very significant impact. You have that brief moment, whether it’s for five minutes or an hour, you have that time period where you legitimately believe there is an active shooting event going on,” she said. “ It creates an incredible amount of trauma and fear because, at that moment, however long it is, people are responding and acting as though they are in fear for their lives because they are.”
These incidents of emotional violence force schools to respond, which often means locking down a school and calling in law enforcement, Klinger said.
“The threat of violence can be just as impactful as the actual violence,” said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center. “It’s important to deal with the threat of violence because if you don’t do anything about it, it tends to escalate.”
The National School Safety Center was founded in 1984 through a presidential directive, and Stephens has been its executive director ever since. Through his time, he’s worked on the response to mass school shootings including Columbine in 1999 and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.
At Sanford and Portland high schools, students were forced to hunker down and hide while heavily armed police officers searched the buildings where they were supposed to be learning.
Some students sent texts to parents telling them they loved them, afraid that those moments of fear on the floor of a classroom would be their last.
That response, while necessary depending on the threat, still erodes students’ and parents’ faith in the safety of their schools, Stephens said.
“There’s also a diminishment of the confidence that we have in our school climate, that it’s a safe and welcoming place to be,” he said. “So it just chips away a little bit more in our confidence in others.”
That is why it is important to hold those responsible for swatting events accountable, Stephens said.
“School kids really don’t have a choice. The law says they have to go to school and teachers have to teach them,” he said. “And parents want to feel as though when their kids go to school, they’ll come home safely. So there’s a wide public interest in making our system work.”
Unfortunately, the ability to hide a phone number or use the internet to spread false reports of active shooters makes it much more difficult to hold people accountable, Klinger said.
While swatting incidents do inflict harm, they also provide communities an opportunity to reflect on the incident and determine how things can change in the future, she said.
But Jen Daigle of Portland said Tuesday that she’s just glad her kids were able to come home safe.
“To see the SWAT team or whatever coming out of your kid’s school, it’s just really disconcerting,” Daigle said. “We’re all on this adrenaline rush right now and want to go home and squeeze our kids and hug and love them.”
BDN editor Paul Koenig contributed to this report.