Schools in Portsmouth and Dover were the target of hoax calls reporting active shooters in schools Thursday morning. A large police presence responded, swept the schools, and found no intruders within an hour of the calls, but not before students, teachers, parents, school staff and the community were shaken by the hoax.
The Portsmouth Police Department, Fire Department and New Hampshire State Police conducted a sweep of all six Portsmouth school buildings Thursday morning, following a report of an active shooter in one of the buildings called in to police at approximately 9:57 a.m. Shortly before 11 a.m., Police Chief Mark Newport reported the buildings all clear.
"No intruders have been found," Newport reported to the school community. All six city schools went into lockdown when the call was received.
"I can assure you that every single school was checked on," Sgt. Jordan Wells said.
Portsmouth police announced Thursday afternoon that due to the volume of calls across the state about the suspected hoax, there would be a police presence at each city school through the end of the day.
Police in Dover and other schools across the state also received similar hoax calls.
Dover Schools Superintendent William Harbron said Dover High School was the only school in the city to receive a hoax call. Police were on scene quickly, Harbron said. Students remained in assembly in the gym as police swept the building.
After the building was determined safe, Dover parents were given the option to pick up their children or allow them to remain in school, Harbron said. Classes continued as scheduled.
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City Councilor Andrew Bagley stood outside Portsmouth High School Thursday morning holding back tears. His stepdaughter, Felicia Maccausland, a sophomore, had sent him a text message when the reports of an active shooter came through: "If I die, I love you."
Bagley alerted City Manager Karen Conard, drove to the high school and speculated whether the situation was another hoax.
Driving up to the school, he noticed a lineup of city and state police cruisers parked near the school's entrances.
"I mean, it's huge," he said of the law enforcement response. "It's a terrible reality of today, but having that kind of response where the police go in without regard for their safety and attack the problem, you can't ask for more as a parent than that kind of response."
A number of students exited the building shortly after 11 a.m. as parents came to pick them up.
Seniors Sarah St. Pierre and Isabella Evilsizer were both in a classical mythology course when they received word of the call.
First assuming it was a drill, students and their teacher pushed tables against the door and waited for more information.
But then an announcement was made that the school would provide further notice of the situation soon. From classrooms nearby, yelling could be heard.
Students texted in group chats and waited for news from school administrators. SAU 52 superintendent Zach McLaughlin notified district families that each of Portsmouth's six schools had been swept and no intruders were found shortly before 11 a.m.
St. Pierre expressed concern about similar threats occurring in other states in the future.
"If they targeted Maine, what state are they going to target next in the New England region?" she said.
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"I don't understand this type of humor because it scares everyone," Evilsizer stated. "People actually die from these situations. I don't think people actually understand that until it happens to you. Everything has a good and a bad to it. It sucks we have this, but I think this will make people realize that we need to take things a little more seriously."
Sophomore student Nick Davis became uneasy when he heard the lockdown announcement. In his Italian class at the time, his instructor began telling students when police cruisers started arriving on Andrew Jarvis Drive.
Hearing no gunshots, no screaming and no crying, Davis waited for the next announcement signaling the school was clear.
"I just never thought it would happen to this school, but that's what happens sometimes, I guess," he said. "It's not good, but it happens."
Portsmouth High School juniors Taylor Loomis and Brianna Clark left the building Thursday battered by the fact that threats sent their school into lockdown.
Loomis was in a social studies class shaking on the ground and feeling as if she'd vomit after the announcement was made. Her teacher told her and her peers to grab their phones and their keys, also believing at first that it was a drill. Clark was in her chemistry class and hid under a desk with her friend.
"There's only going to be so many hoaxes before it's real," Loomis said. "This could happen again. You never really know. These things are just way too common in our world today, and it saddens me that this happened to my school. I just woke up today to go to school like a normal day. Today is just a lot different than I expected it to be."
Clark stated it will be difficult for students to move past the incident, even if the threats were unsubstantiated.
"I think it was hard for teachers, too, because they didn't know what was going on," she said.
Following the department's response, Newport told the Portsmouth Herald that police learned quickly that the reported threat was false and that the building could be turned back over to school officials. Multiple sweeps of the high school building and the city's other schools by Portsmouth and State police took about an hour.
The chief expressed his appreciation for the response from parents of the students. It's the police department's protocol to alert parents of the situation, but ask them not to immediately come directly over to the school, which many abided by as police conducted a thorough search of Portsmouth High School to deem the threat as non-credible.
"In the moment, it's scary for the kids and staff and parents because no one knows what's happening until we can get there and ensure it's safe," he said.
Portsmouth police train regularly for active shooter situations. One SAU 52 school had a lockdown drill, which Newport stated are becoming more frequent like fire drills, just last week.
"Today was a good testament to show that our training has paid off," he said.
What's difficult to prevent are hoax calls from coming in.
"All we can do is just make it so that the students and staff and parents know that when it does happen, the police and school departments are trained to handle the situation," Newport continued.
Amid the lockdowns while police were securing the schools, the N.H. Department of Safety released a statement saying it was aware of multiple calls reporting active shooter threats at schools throughout the state.
"Multiple state agencies are assisting local law enforcement agencies that are responding to those calls and with the investigation into those calls. The New Hampshire Information Analysis Center is heavily involved in coordinating these investigations," the statement said. Other jurisdictions across the country have reported receiving hoax calls, the press release said, adding "At this time, these reports are believed to be a hoax. However, all threats will be taken seriously until such time as their validity is determined."
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said that while these reports were a hoax, "all threats will be taken seriously until such time as their validity is determined."
"All state agencies are coordinating in this response, and we remain on top of this situation," Sununu said in a press release. "We would like to thank all local partners for their diligence in responding across the state."
At least 10 schools in Maine, including Sanford High School, received and responded to similar false reports on Nov. 15.
False reports of school shooters have been national problem
Reports of school shootings that proved to be false occurred at schools across Ohio in September, according to reporting by the Cincinnati Enquirer. The practice of making the false reports is commonly called swatting.
The false reports in Ohio were similar and specific, the Enquirer reported. In multiple 911 calls, a man identifying himself as James Park falsely reported a gunman had opened fire and 10 students are wounded. The same calls came in for multiple schools. Other false reports have occurred in Florida, among other states.
This article originally appeared on Portsmouth Herald: Police respond to hoax calls of school shooters in Portsmouth, Dover