Vt. authorities call school swatting hoax an act of ‘terrorism’
MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - At least 21 schools across Vermont received threats of school shootings on Wednesday, and police say all of them were hoaxes.
Just after 8 a.m., phones at police dispatch centers across Vermont lit up, reporting active shooters in schools all around the state. That included Montpelier High School, where police rushed to the scene.
“For shots fired at the school with two students hit,” said Vermont State Police Sgt. Charles Winn. He says the school was put in lockdown while nearly 50 officers swarmed the building. “We train with active alerts and several other agencies to train for active shooter incidents. We train for this for years.”
Parents worried that the threat was real, showed up outside to check on their children. And students - many desensitized to the constant threat of school violence -- sheltered inside. “I think it’s definitely an unreal situation, but it’s a situation that so many people across this state and this country have to deal with all the time,” said Merrick Modun, an MHS senior.
Students and staff at Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington also sent into lockdown as police rushed to the scene. “People thought it was kind of odd because we had a drill like a week or two ago,” said Nathan McDonald, a junior at the school.
The dynamic chain of events unfolded in real time across 21 public and private schools in Vermont communities, including Colchester High School, where administrators put their emergency plans into action.
“These incidents -- we go into our crisis response mode and think about what are the things that we need to do as quickly as possible to keep as many people in our building safe,” said Colchester Schools Superintendent Amy Minor.
Schools and police weren’t the only ones to respond. In a matter of hours, Governor Phil Scott, top lawmakers, and school and emergency officials briefed the public. They say all 21 shooting threats proved to be a hoax and were part of a coordinated international trend known as swatting, where people call in fake incidents that spur a massive police response.
“This is terrorism to invoke fear and chaos in a community,” said Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Jennnifer Morrison.
It’s unknown who made the calls, where they came from, or why. Officials say some had a fake 802 phone number. The Vermont Intelligence Center along with federal agencies are investigating.
Governor Scott says the state takes all threats seriously. ”We want to communicate this. We want to make sure that kids and families know we’re on this, we are here to help, and we are doing everything we can to prevent anything like this in the future,” he said.
Right now, it appears no other states in the nation received these calls on Wednesday, though New Hampshire and Maine have dealt with similar situations in recent months.
School leaders say the looming possibility that these threats could be real takes a toll on the mental health of students, teachers, and emergency responders. “You don’t want to shove it under the rug and not talk about it because that can make it more scary for children,” said Vt. Deputy Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey.
In the coming days, school officials will be rolling out mental health resources in schools. While schools, police, and communities reflect on their response, the governor acknowledges that while the threats are unnerving, they show Vermonters’ strength. “We can use this energy to come together, because unity is the most powerful way to make sure terrorists don’t achieve their goals,” he said.
WHAT IS THE INTENT OF SWATTERS?
“It’s definitely a serious matter, and why people are doing this is beyond me, but a lot of people could get hurt and it’s very, very serious,” said Brandon Police Chief David Kachajian, who responded to Otter Valley Union High School following Wednesday’s threat that students at the school had been shot. “The voice sounded a little digitized when we got the call and at that point the person hung up and we didn’t get any further information.”
Swatting incidents like this have occurred across the country for years and the motive is often unclear. “It could be someone who’s just doing this as a general prank or it could be someone trying to take law enforcement resources away from one location so that a crime can be committed someplace else,” Kachajian said.
Commissioner Jennnifer Morrison said whatever the intent, it’s an act of terrorism. “I can think of no other motivation other than some depraved person or entity perpetrates these calls to upset communities and to create havoc,” she said.
Experts say the fact that the swatters used a familiar area code highlights how the practice has evolved over the years, using technology and the internet to place them. “A lot of these calls are perpetrated by folks that are either out of state or overseas. They’re very adept in concealing who they are and where the phone calls are coming from,” said Rob Evans, Vermont’s school safety coordinator.
Morrison said the calls may continue but she warned people not to dismiss them as a hoax in light of this, but to report them to the police so they can respond.
The schools that got the hoax calls on Wednesday included:
- Alburgh Community Education Center - Alburgh
- Arlington Memorial High School - Arlington
- Brattleboro High School - Brattleboro
- Christ the King School - Rutland
- Colchester High School - Colchester
- East Burke School – East Burke
- Enosburgh High School - Enosburgh
- 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 - Highgate
- Montpelier High School - Montpelier
- Newport City Elementary School - Newport
- North Country Union High School - Derby
- North Country Union Jr. 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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