Grant Lundy sits and takes notes while in his language arts class at Bangor’s William S. Cohen School. Every now and then, he turns to his classmates and chats. He is also constantly preparing for the chance someone will enter his favorite class with a gun to kill him.
“It’s a little bit scary going to school at this time because it can happen any time, and so you have to be careful,” the 11-year-old sixth-grader said. “It could happen to any school.”
The seemingly near-constant threat of violence has become a routine part of the school experience for students across Maine and the U.S. since the 1999 Columbine massacre, and particularly since schools have returned to mostly normal operations following pandemic shutdowns.
On Tuesday, it seemed as if that threat was materializing as more than 10 schools across Maine were hit by false reports of active shooters. The reports, determined to be a hoax after the fact, sent many of those schools into lockdowns that were not drills, causing students and teachers to fear for their lives, and leading parents to wonder if frightened text messages would be the last they heard from their children. Then, on Friday, threats forced the closure of schools in Falmouth and Yarmouth.
Students who spoke with the Bangor Daily News this week have been routinely trained how to run, remain quiet and hide in the event someone decides to target their school. Some said they are increasingly scared at school, especially as threats that have grown more common make clear that school violence can happen anywhere — even if the probability is low. Another student said he and many of his classmates have grown numb to the threats.
Stephanie Clingsham, a senior at Hampden Academy, didn’t used to think much about the possibility of an active shooter coming into her school until last year Bangor-area schools dealt with a spate of threats.
“It was something that happened in other states and we heard about it on the news, but I thought Maine was safe and that wouldn’t happen here,” she said. “I didn’t get scared until people started making threats and I had a reason to be scared.”
Since last year, she said, she has missed school three times because of threats. Regardless of how credible a threat is, she’s not willing to take a chance.
“It’s hard to put into words how scary it is when threats are made,” Clingsham, 17, said. “Someone’s life is their most precious thing, so to threaten that — especially children’s lives — there’s nothing worse than that, and that’s why it’s so scary.”
Though each threat sparks renewed fear, Clingsham said she’s somewhat comforted by the quick responses from administrators and local police.
“While that’s really scary to see that, it’s relieving to know we’d be taken care of,” she said.
Lundy first remembers having to practice hiding in his classroom when he was in second grade. At the time, he said, he didn’t know this particular drill was called a “lockdown” and didn’t have a clue that it was designed to keep students safe in an active shooter situation.
“I think they watered it down a little bit,” he said. “They told the school the drills were for if someone’s dog was on the loose in the school and that we would need to hide from it.”
Since then, Lundy has quickly gained a firmer understanding of those drills’ purpose, but that doesn’t make life as a sixth grader any easier.
After a recent lockdown drill, Lundy said, he was sitting next to a friend in math class. His friend turned to him and asked what they would do if someone came into their classroom right then and opened fire.
“It’s kind of claustrophobic, you know,” Lundy said. “Like, either way, I’m gonna get hurt, whether it’s mentally or physically.”
Just last week, Lundy said, his school called a soft lockdown during which no one could leave their classrooms due to an issue in the hallway. At that moment, he said, that sinking feeling of fear crept in.
“I kind of feel this fear a lot of the time, but it’s not like I feel it every day,” he said.
In each of Harry Bailey’s classes at Hampden Academy, a poster hangs on the wall outlining what students should do in six different kinds of emergencies, including an active shooter in the building.
“We’re getting used to the feeling of being threatened, and that’s not good for anyone,” Bailey, a junior, said. “The general feeling is we get so many empty threats that we hear it and move on.”
Last year, Bailey said, there were “too many to count, unfortunately,” he said.
It seems like a “natural possibility” that an active shooter could enter Hampden Academy, Bailey said, given the sheer number of school shootings in the U.S. each year, the number of threats schools receive and the prevalence of gun ownership locally.
“Students and teachers talk about it. It feels like you’re surrounded by it,” Bailey, 16, said. “No matter what the day is, even if there’s not a threat, you have that underlying feeling.”
While some students struggle to cope with that, Bailey said others, including him, have grown numb to the threats because they feel as though there’s nothing they can do to prevent a school shooting.
“We have things like student resource officers and lockdown training, but other than that we just have to hope it doesn’t happen,” he said.
Many students wish adults would take action to end gun violence through legislation, activism or another route, Bailey said.
“The end goal should be kids not getting shot in their own school or neighborhoods, so I feel like we should take all the steps we can to eliminate that,” he said.