False reports of active shooters in schools are having serious consequences



CNN

It was a quiet Friday morning for Murrisha Leon, when she got a call from a sleeping parent friend alerting her to an active shooter at her children’s school in Arkansas.

Immediately, Leon’s heart sank as the image of worst-case scenarios flooded his mind. He might lose one of his children today, he told himself.

“I jumped in a panic and immediately threw up,” Leon told CNN. “I believed and I was afraid for the lives of my children. I called them, and when they didn’t answer the first time, I started crying.”

Leon’s son, 14, and daughter, 16, both attend Watson Chapel High School, shortly after the school received word of an active shooter on campus, another in a series of reported threats to schools across the US this week.

Leon soon received a text from his son saying, “Mom, please come get me, they say three people have been shot in the bathroom and I’m scared.”

After a harrowing 30-minute wait at the school, Leon, along with hundreds of other terrified teachers, students and parents, discovered it was a false alarm.

A series of prank messages were sent to police, reporting an armed person on campus and saying shots had been fired, the Pine Bluff Police Department wrote on Facebook. A sweep of the middle and high school campuses confirmed the report was a hoax.

Such false reports are a growing problem in the United States, and have even drawn the attention of the FBI.

“When I found out the prank was over a text I was really upset,” Leon said. “It wasn’t a game for us and it wasn’t a game for our children, they were in that building afraid they would be killed.”

As students across the district were being released to their parents, many still crying, similar panic was spreading elsewhere.

At least two more U.S. school districts were hit with hoax calls Friday after a series of false reports of active shooters earlier this week.

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office Florida received a report of a possible threat to the district’s schools on Friday afternoon, the office said. Out of an abundance of caution, several schools in the district were placed on lockdown, with South Fort Myers High School being given “special attention,” the department said.

“All resources were directed to the school and expanded. Shortly thereafter, it was determined to be a scam call” the sheriff’s office said.

The Hollywood, Florida Police Department received a call Friday evening about a “possible threat” at McArthur High School, the department said. He later confirmed that no threat was found on campus.

Such incidents, where prank calls are made to authorities under the false pretense that a crime has been committed or is in progress, are sometimes called “switting” and usually result in a violent response from the local police or police. SWAT teams.

Authorities are taking note of its frequency, and are warning citizens of its dangers.

“The FBI is aware of numerous incidents where a report of an active shooter at a school is made,” the FBI said. statement Thursday after a high school in Houston, Texas was evacuated following a false report of “10 people shot” earlier in the week.

“The FBI takes the hit very seriously because it puts innocent people at risk.”

Swatting has led to tragedy before. In 2017, 28-year-old Andrew Finch was accidentally killed by police at his Kansas home after a prankster reported a hostage situation at the address. Tyler Raj Barriss, the man who made the report, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison.

“It’s not a joke and it’s not harmless,” CNN chief law enforcement and intelligence analyst John Miller said. “Of all the types of switching, this creates the most danger. When the police show up in what they think is an active shooter, they come in strong, heavy, armed, and fast. It raises the risk level for everyone involved and is putting people at risk.”

False reports also drain limited police resources, which are better served by focusing on real crimes, Miller said.

“It puts a lot of police resources into an incident that doesn’t actually happen because it creates this sense of serious danger and urgency that could result in a lot of casualties,” he said. “It also takes police resources away from incidents that are actually happening. Low-priority calls can be quite serious and you’re delaying response times and not getting help to the people who really need it.”

While investigations into scam calls like Friday’s are “very time-consuming and difficult,” with callers hiding behind layers of concealment, encrypted platforms and the dark web, Miller said, it’s critical that local police take it seriously.

“It’s still worth pursuing these cases, because when they end in arrests, it really dispels the idea that it can be done with impunity,” he added.

There was nothing funny about parents yelling their children’s names outside Watson Chapel High School on Friday, Leon said.

It wasn’t fun inside the school either, where Jacorrian Spears said students and staff texted friends and family to say “I love you” one last time.

Spears, an AP US history teacher, recalls the moment her fourth-period class was interrupted by the school secretary screaming into the intercom, “code black, code black, code black,” with “anxiety in her voice.”

Immediately, Spears locked the door to her classroom and barricaded the room with a shelf before covering it with terrified students. Almost an hour later, they were all released.

From her window, Spears saw a stream of parents rushing to join their children.

“The teachers were trying to piece together what happened and the students were ready to go home,” Spears said. “When we found out it was a prank, I think I was relieved, but it was horrible.”

In addition to instilling fear and panic, Spears said the incident re-traumatized many of her students, who witnessed the death of a classmate in a 2021 middle school shooting on the same campus as the high school.

“Students said they had flashbacks of the shooting that happened to them in preschool,” Spears said. “Those kids are now 11th graders and they’re still wearing their classmates’ RIP hoodies and shirts. They told me earlier how he still kind of bullies them and it hasn’t gotten any better today. ”

The 15-year-old boy who died in the 2021 shooting was Leon’s daughter’s best friend. “He lives that memory every day,” Leon said. “It’s all back today.”

Leon is now focused on helping his children through another traumatic event.

“It’s very stressful to be a parent today,” Leon said. “I get scared every time they walk out the door. Even before today, I insisted that my children go to school.’

“In this day and age, things like this really do happen,” he added. “You can’t imagine the stress and pain you cause families when you do things like this. This is something that most parents worry about every day when we send our children to school. It must be stopped.”