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For Maine schools impacted by 'swatting,' the fear lasts despite the fake threats


Some schools around the country face false reports of violence. Ten schools were targeted on the same day last month in Maine. These incidents, known as swatting, seem intended to draw an armed police response. And the fake threats bring real fear. Maine Public's Nicole Ogrysko reports.

NICOLE OGRYSKO, BYLINE: Nov. 15 started like any other day for Kristen DeForge until she got a text that morning from her daughter Jenna, who was inside Sanford High School and Regional Technical Center.

KRISTEN DEFORGE: Jenna said, Mom, there's a shooter in the high school, and I'm locked in my classroom. And I think I went into panic mode.

OGRYSKO: Nearly a dozen nearby towns and federal agencies responded to the scene. Three air ambulances were on standby. Major hospitals closed their emergency rooms, preparing for the worst. Just 35 miles away, dispatchers received a similar call about an apparent active shooter at Portland High School. The school went into lockdown. Special education teacher Michael Brown says he couldn't quite hear the announcement but knew something was wrong.

MICHAEL BROWN: A few of my advisory students were sprinting down the hall with such a stressful look on their face - and fear, and other teachers had come down from the first floor, where they had witnessed the police come into the building, and were just pushing kids into classrooms. And I knew right then it was serious.

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OGRYSKO: More than 35 police officers swept the school, entering each classroom. Senior Eliza Stein was ushered into an unfamiliar office with a few others. She says they were checking social media posts on their phones and soon realized that Portland wasn't the only school that had been locked down.

ELIZA STEIN: Pretty quick, we figured out how to download the police app, and we were listening to the police radio. We were listening to the one in Sanford, like, in live time, and we were all just, like, silent.

OGRYSKO: But there was no shooter in Portland, Sanford or any of the eight other schools in Maine that received similar calls that morning. So far this school year, there have been at least 240 false reports of violence in schools around the country. Amy Klinger of the Educator's School Safety Network tracks those incidents and says that's a nearly 600% increase in the last four years.

AMY KLINGER: You can create chaos. You can undermine the institution. You can make people not trust the school, not want to send their kids to school, be afraid. I mean, people do it because it works. It clearly works.

OGRYSKO: There is no clear-cut motive behind the hoax calls, although an NPR analysis did find that schools in 28 states were apparently targeted earlier this year by the same individual. It's not clear if the hoax calls in Maine are part of that pattern, but the FBI and local authorities are investigating. For Kristen DeForge in Sanford, the experience didn't feel like a hoax. It's had a lingering impact on her and her daughter.

DEFORGE: She saw police with assault rifles. She was led out of her classroom with her hands on her head. I mean, everything she saw and felt and smelt and - every experience she had that day led her to believe there was a shooter in the school that day.

OGRYSKO: Swatting incidents have been a wake-up call for some schools, prompting them to revisit their safety plans. And Klinger warns, these hoaxes have become so prevalent that all schools should prepare for one.

For NPR News, I'm Nicole Ogrysko in Portland, Maine.


Nicole Ogrysko