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Active shooter hoax continues to haunt Maine schools

The hoax caused a lot of trauma, chaos, stress, and anxiety for many students, parents, teachers, and staff members.

MAINE, Maine — More than 10 schools throughout Maine went into lockdown on Nov. 15 after regional dispatch centers received 911 calls reporting an active shooter on campus.

Police agencies stormed into schools looking for a threat but never found one. That's because the calls were a hoax -- a hoax that caused a lot of trauma, chaos, stress, and anxiety for many students, parents, teachers, and staff members.

Sanford High School was the first to receive a threat around 8:30 a.m. 

According to Sanford police Lt. Matthew Gagne, the department's dispatch center received a call from a male claiming to be a teacher who was locked inside the school. The person went on to report five students were shot and even provided a description of the gunman.

Officers found nothing at the school. Then several similar threats came to different districts. That's when law enforcement officials realized they were dealing with hoax calls, also called "swatting" calls.

In Sanford, the high school was immediately dismissed. There was no school the next morning, and some students just returned after taking some time to adjust from the trauma.

Two weeks later, many community members are also still on edge.

"I didn't refer to this at all as a hoax, because the media is, but for our kids and our staff that day ... it didn't feel like a hoax," Matt Nelson, superintendent of Sanford schools, said.

"It was a real scenario until it wasn't," Gagne explained. "Everything involved in that -- all the feelings and the students watching us clear classrooms with guns, moving them to safe locations -- all of that was real for them, and it was real for us. And that's something that parents and teachers have to manage in terms of the mental health follow."

Nelson said these inhumane acts have caused much harm in the Sanford community, but he is extremely proud of the resilience and willingness of students, parents, and staff to persevere.

"Most of our students did return. We had some situations where there were some students who still were not comfortable coming back. They needed another day or two. [There were] some students that were also talking about coming back after the thanksgiving break," Nelson explained.

Nelson wants to make clear that Sanford's schools are safe places. He and other school officials have been meeting since the incident to focus on things the school department could improve moving forward. One of them, Nelson said, is keeping students and families informed in a timely manner.

"In this day and age, with social media, I think it's really important as a school for us to be able to communicate timely. Obviously, we always want to make sure that what we are communicating is accurate," Nelson told NEWS CENTER Maine.

Gagne said Sanford police and other law enforcement teams are also working on making some changes to how they handle active shooter calls.

"Some things that we've learned is that the students are not necessarily going to know it's the police that are knocking on the door," Gagne explained. "That's one of the things that we've learned from this incident: that some of the students weren't aware that we were knocking and saying that we were the police, [and] that we actually were the police."

Nelson said counselors would be widely available in schools for anyone who needs guidance and support.

"We just don't want to say, 'OK, we provided the service and that was what our responsibility was.' We are always on the lookout and working together with those relationships I talked about," Nelson said. "There may be some students and some families that we know that we are reaching out to them, as check-ins, ourselves -- not only as a reactive but more as a proactive to be able to check in on people."

Nelson said one of the things they are carefully assessing at the school department level is how to have future active shooter drills but at the same time keep everyone calm.

"I went to Sanford High School. I grew up here in Sanford. These are things that I never had to experience. I never had to train for this. But the unfortunate thing for our society right now is that these things happen, and you have to be prepared for them," Gagne said. "It's nothing that you ever want to have to train your kids to do. But at the same time, they need to have some level of preparation if the event is real. We did come across classrooms that were barricaded, and students had makeshift weapons as a result of the training that they received."

Both the superintendent and the lieutenant reinforced the value of having school resource officers inside the school, and Sanford High School's two school resource officers were inside the school at the time of the 911 call.

Gagne said that after a long investigation into that specific call and the other ones that came to schools in Maine, investigators determined it came from a spoofed number. Gagne also told NEWS CENTER Maine it appeared as though the call did not even come from United States but rather internationally.

Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating but sent the following statement to NEWS CENTER Maine:

"The FBI is aware of the numerous swatting incidents wherein a report of an active shooter at a school is made and is working alongside our law enforcement partners in identifying the source of the hoax threats. Due to the ongoing investigation, we are unable to provide more details. However, it is important to note that law enforcement is going to use all available resources to investigate a school threat until we determine whether it is real or not. Investigating hoax threats drains law enforcement resources and diverts us from responding to an actual crisis. Hoax threats can shut down schools, cause undue stress and fear to the public, and cost taxpayers a lot of money; not to mention ruin the future of those making the hoax threats as they’ll likely have a criminal record, like the student featured in this video: https://www.fbi.gov/video-repository/think-before-you-post-psa.mp4/view

We urge the public to remain vigilant, and report any and all suspicious activity and/or individuals to law enforcement immediately."

Officials reiterated how these events and investigations take up a significant amount of time and pull many resources that could be more useful for other 911 calls. It's also making students lose valuable school hours and days. Nelson and Gagne said they would continue to train for these types of unfortunate incidents.

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