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A string of fake active shooter threats at schools leaves Mountain West communities shaken

 Police in the Cheyenne, Wyo. area responding to a hoax active shooter threat at South High School.
Courtesy of the Cheyenne Police Department
Police in the Cheyenne, Wyo. area responding to a hoax active shooter threat at South High School.

On a Wednesday morning in early April, a social media threat began circulating around Cody, Wyo. The threat warned, “CHS is going down,” according to Park County District 6 Superintendent Vernon Orndorff.

“We activated our crisis plan, securing students in classrooms, making sure our students [and] employees are safe,” he said.

For those at Cody High School at the time, like junior Curtis Miller, it meant a terrifying lockdown. Miller was sheltered in his Spanish classroom for about a half an hour.

“In that moment, I started texting my mom back and forth, just freaked out a little bit,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what was going on. Who knows, there might be someone coming in with the intent of harming the school.”

Miller said some of his friends were in a locker room when the lockdown began. When a police officer later knocked on the door to let students out, many grabbed baseball bats to defend themselves. They didn’t know if the person knocking was there to help them or to harm them.

It turns out, the threat was a recirculated post referencing a school in New Mexico from years ago. No one was hurt that Wednesday at Cody High School. But Miller said it was still hard for him to concentrate for the rest of the day.

“It's scary to think about right now. Just going back every day just wondering, 'Could this be the day where it's actually not a drill, it actually happens?'” he said. “It's the thought that I have to, I guess, live with every day, going back to that building.”

CHS wasn't the only Wyoming school on high alert. Two days earlier, schools in 12 Wyoming communities, including Cody, were hit by false active shooter reports that triggered similar lockdowns.

David Janes, services captain with the Cheyenne Police Department and the father of multiple children in the local school system, said his heart sank when he heard about the threat at a Cheyenne high school.

Janes described the call that came in as, “a person claiming to be hiding in the bathroom, and having seen four people get shot and a suspect.”“They're not asking for anything," he said "They're just making a false report basically of an active shooter in progress.”

When threats like this happen, the police department has to treat it like it’s a real situation, even when there are signs that the call might be a hoax. Multiple police officers swept the school to confirm there was no shooter.

“We would rather be wrong and have it be a safe situation and nobody injured than to be wrong and not respond appropriately to an actual situation going on,” Janes said. “For a lot of our people here, it's frustrating and it's heartbreaking to think that our kids are at school, and they're dealing with this, whether it's real, whether it's not real. It's an amount of stress they shouldn't be taking on during the course of a day.”

Additionally, just responding to threats like these takes up valuable resources, tying up SWAT teams and other officers. Mark Michalek is with the FBI’s Denver office. He said these false reports – known as “swatting” – are not victimless crimes.

“Over about the past ten years or so we've seen an uptick both in the number and the scale of these types of calls,” Michalek said. “We've seen that scale increase to hospitals, schools, colleges [and] public areas."

More than a dozen Colorado schools received threatening swatting calls in February. They’ve also been reported in Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, Montana, and Nevada this year. These are serious crimes. In Gillette, Wyo., police arrested a 13-year-old boy this month and charged him with a felony count of making terroristic threats.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y, recently called upon the FBI to crack down on this “alarming trend.” But Michalek said it’s often a frustrating crime to solve because the calls could be coming from out of the country or from someone using a fake phone number or a voice generator.

“The motivation is unclear, whether it's notoriety, whether it's to disrupt law enforcement operations or just to create panic,” Michalek said.

In the meantime, the FBI is warning people of the harm swatting calls cause. One of the impacts is the general feeling – especially in the wake of real school shootings like the recent one in Nashville – that schools aren’t safe.

Sarah Mikesell Growney, the mother of a Cody High School senior, said there are times when her daughter doesn't want to go to school out of fear for her own safety.

“The fact that I have to talk to my kids about being fighters and being survivors and how to play dead and how to fight back when it's relevant, and finding the will to live no matter what, because they're going to school – that's ridiculous,” she said.

Mikesell Growney said her daughter has sought therapy to quell her anxiety, but is mostly looking forward to graduating and potentially living in a place with more restrictive gun laws.

“I expect gun violence in Wyoming and that's really sad. It's just a matter of time,” MIkesell Growney said. “You have to be able to deliver the kids some good news, and we don't have any.”

Back in Cody, Superintendent Vernon Orndorff said the district has counselors on-hand to help students process the recent threats. Swatting incidents disrupt learning and can cause mental health issues, according to Robin Gurwitch, a psychologist and professor at Duke Medical Center.

“Your body doesn't just go from 90 to zero in a heartbeat," she said. "It takes a while, and so that calm-down is very difficult, and that anxiety stays high. Your body is responding just physiologically, just like your brain and your emotions are with what's going on.”

Gurwitch said such experiences can cause kids to have get more temper tantrums. Others might become more irritable, have trouble sleeping or concentrating, act depressed or be more likely to turn to drugs or commit suicide. She said adults should respond by giving students space, validating their feelings and telling the truth about what happened and how schools and police are reacting.

“You also are provided with an opportunity to check with your children and have a discussion about your values about how we treat others, and what we should do if we're concerned about something,” Gurwitch said. “It is incumbent upon us as adults to have these difficult conversations with our children, even our kindergarteners. We should talk to children.”

She said communication is also important so that kids feel comfortable speaking out when they see something that could be a threat to their community. Local law enforcement agencies are also encouraging people to flag anything that signals a potential act of violence – even if it’s fake.

Resources regarding how to respond to traumatic events are available at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2023 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

Will Walkey
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