WMHS handles ‘active shooter’ hoax

Wed, 11/16/2022 - 7:45am

    An “active shooter” hoax Nov. 15 affecting Wiscasset Middle High School and several other Maine schools had local, state and federal agencies investigating the threats, reassuring families and the public and continuing to work on safety.

    Wiscasset Superintendent of Schools Robert “Bob” England Jr. told reporters via conference call Nov. 16, a law enforcement dispatcher received a report “to the effect that” there was an active shooter at WMHS and that five people had been shot; the dispatcher notified School Resource Officer Jonathan Barnes at about 10:12 a.m., Barnes immediately put the school on lockdown, and Police Chief Lawrence Hesseltine and the ambulance service came, England said.

    He added, before the report of an active shooter at WMHS, Assistant Principal Warren Cossette heard a report of one in Sanford and went around making sure all the doors were locked like England said they normally are. And Principal Charles Lomonte heard a report of a hoax at a Portland school, England said.
    “Several dispatchers around the state (heard) something to the effect that ‘You have a shooter in your school with a Middle Eastern accent, five people are dead or shot’ and that was it, sent to (dispatchers) at different increments of time,” England said.

    He said when other districts he has served have had hoaxes like bomb scares, the threat was made to the school directly, not through law enforcement. “We still took (the Nov. 15 active shooter report) as real, and treated it as real, even though we heard the rumor (of its being) a hoax,” he said.

    That is how Maine Information &Analysis Center says to handle it, according to an unclassified document England shared. The Center’s Nov. 15 statement read in part, “Public safety partners are reminded to handle all initial threats as if there is a true active shooter situation taking place as any delays could result in fatalities. Emergency services will keep investigating the situation to determine whether there is a real active shooter situation.”

    As for the day’s incidents, the Center advised, “These calls have been deemed hoaxes and appear to be a part of an ongoing national trend.”
    Once it was confirmed it and the others in Maine were hoaxes, England said he, Lomonte, Cossette, counselor Shaye Paradis, plus Hesseltine and Barnes met with the high school students and then the middle school ones, telling them what was known at the time, including that everyone was safe, fielding their questions, telling them to tell an adult if they ever hear of any threats, or if they know someone is harming themselves; and telling them they will be part of further training for incidents.
    Students were respectful, listened and “it appeared they understood,” he said.
    Some parents picked up their students from school, England said. The full school day was held there and at Wiscasset Elementary School, which had also been secured as a precaution, England said. And after the hoax was confirmed, England asked WES to “just hold recess inside” that day, he said.

    Agencies’ emails and wiscassetschools.org posts discussed the situation WMHS and other schools experienced. In one release, U.S. Attorney Darcie N. McElwee cited a concern false reports like that day’s hoaxes “can make people question the validity of future threats.

    “It is vital that we all remain vigilant,” McElwee said in a press release. “If you see or hear something, notify authorities to give them the opportunity to investigate but avoid spreading unsubstantiated rumors which can spread misinformation and cause panic.” McElwee said hoaxes “disrupt school, waste law enforcement resources, and put first responders in unnecessary danger while causing emotional distress to entire communities, including students, school personnel, and parents. It's also a serious federal crime. Those who post or send these threats can receive time in federal prison and could also face state or local charges.
    “Maine is the latest state to fall victim to a wave of ‘swatting’ incidents, with multiple communities today feeling the fear that has been shared by so many across the country,” McElwee continued. “Every report of an active shooter is taken seriously by law enforcement at all levels. Today was no different, and I commend the local, state, and federal law enforcement for their swift action and coordinated response.
    “We know all too well that school shootings happen. From Columbine, to Sandy Hook, to Parkland, to Uvalde, to far too many others, past tragedies are engrained in our collective memories. We know that a similar tragedy could happen anywhere – even here in Maine,” McElwee said in asking for vigilance.

    Maine Department of Public Safety Spokesman Shannon Moss said in an email that morning, the department knew of multiple active shooter threats made at schools throughout the state, and Maine State Police were helping local law enforcement investigate. 

    “At this time these reports are believed to be a hoax. The Maine Information Analysis Center (MIAC) is heavily involved in coordinating these investigations,” Moss wrote. 

    A statement from Lomonte at wiscassetschools.org read, “As we continue to learn more and verify about the alerts from area schools we are taking precautions to keep our students safe. As a precaution we have secured our school building and are working with the Wiscasset Police Department to ensure the safety of our school. Wiscasset Police (Department) was informed of a potential threat and we are acting accordingly.”

    The school department website also shared a Wiscasset Police Department announcement. It stated in part, “This morning multiple hoax calls of active shooter threats have been made at schools throughout the state, including the Wiscasset Middle High School. Wiscasset Police are working with the schools to ensure the continued safety of our students and community. Again, there are NO credible threats at this time.” 

    Later, Lomonte wrote parents this letter: “Our student body met today to debrief today’s events in school. The Wiscasset Police Department, teachers, administration, and our counselor were all on hand to answer questions regarding the lockdown. Our students and staff continue to give us feedback that will help inform our response to ensure everyone’s safety in a real emergency.”

    Lomonte’s letter further stated, “The safety and welfare of all students and staff is our primary responsibility. As a result, you can expect trainings for students and parents in the future that would help us keep everyone safe. If you have further questions, feedback, or concerns please contact the main office. We appreciate your continued support.”

    And in a separate letter to “community members,” England said the school department is “updating all aspects of the school system’s safety plan. We have had a team dedicated to this since August. In the coming months, you will hear about upgrades to camera systems, air quality monitoring, communications systems, entrance enhancements, etc. that are planned or being implemented.

    “As always if you have questions please do not hesitate to reach out. I promise that the information I can share with you will be accurate, and I will absolutely listen to your concerns, even if I do not have immediate answers.”