More than 20 schools across Vermont were threatened with shootings and other violence Wednesday in what police say was part of a nationwide hoax.
Vermont’s Public Safety Commissioner Jennifer Morrison says the hoax is part of an international ‘swatting’ effort, which is when someone makes a prank call in an attempt to draw large numbers of police officers to a scene.
“This is terrorism to invoke fear and chaos in the community,” she said.
After the calls, schools went into lockdowns. South Burlington police converged on the Rice Memorial High School campus shortly after receiving what Chief Shawn Burke called an “active threat.”
An hour later, Burke announced no credible threat had been found.
By 11 a.m., 21 schools in Vermont had received similar threats, according to state police.
Police said law enforcement agencies across Vermont and the U.S. have received calls that report threats of violence at schools, with Maine and New Hampshire going through a similar situation in recent months. None of the threats have been deemed credible.
“There were all very similar messages,” Morrison said. “They are possibly technologically created messages.”
According to state police, the calls likely originate from Voice over Internet Protocol, or VOIP, phone numbers or fake 802 numbers and “appear to be associated with ongoing nationwide hoax phone threats of school shootings, bomb threats, and other violent events that have proved to be unfounded.”
Morrison said the calls were received on dispatch centers’ main lines and not on the 911 line, with most coming from a similar voice on the other end. She added that the Agency of Education warned schools about an event of this magnitude just six weeks ago.
The Essex Police Department said it received a call just after 9:50 a.m. reporting an active shooter at an Essex school. The department, after checking in with the local schools, said there were no threats.
Montpelier Police Chief Eric Nordenson said his department received a similar call at 9:25 a.m. reporting that two students were injured at the city’s high school, and that there was a fight in progress in a specific room of the building. It also gave a detailed description of the alleged shooter, but after inspecting the scene, the department deemed the call illegitimate.
“The call was extremely descriptive and put us on alarm, our officers immediately responded to the school, called for mutual aid and put the school in lockdown,” Nordenson said.
Montpelier City Manager William Fraser said a threat to Montpelier High School came from an out-of-state number. Emergency personnel swept the school twice and found nothing.
“This was clearly a hoax call,” Fraser said.
Gov. Phil Scott and state education and law enforcement officials held a news conference on Wednesday addressing the hoax calls, and commending the state’s response to the swatting.
“These events are unnerving for everyone – students, teachers, parents and Vermonters,” Scott said in a statement. “We can use this energy to come together because unity is the most powerful way to ensure terrorists do not achieve their goals.”
Morrison also said these calls could continue and need to be taken seriously. Both state and federal agencies are leading an ongoing investigation into the swatting event, and who is behind it. More information will be released as it becomes available.