Parents wait outside of Sanford Memorial gym on Tuesday to pick up students after they were bused to the gym because of a report of an active shooter at Sanford High School, which was quickly discovered to be a hoax. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

The school day at Sanford High School had barely begun when a call came into the local dispatch center: Someone claiming to be a teacher described being locked in the staff room and said that a shooter with a “long gun” had injured several students.

Within minutes, as the news spread, students and teachers were locking themselves in classrooms and storage closets as police from Sanford and surrounding towns raced to the building. Parents began receiving “I love you” text messages from their children.

Eleven minutes after the call about Sanford High, a similar call came in to Portland about Portland High School, where students filled the halls between classes. A lockdown was ordered, and teachers pulled students into any available space to hunker down and wait. Every police officer in the city rushed to the school.

Within an hour – even as students were still being evacuated and classrooms at the two schools cleared by armed officers – law enforcement officials determined the calls were a hoax. In all, police received 10 calls reporting active shooters in schools from York County to Aroostook County.

Threats were reported at Sanford, Portland, Brunswick, Ellsworth, Houlton, Winslow, Wiscasset and Gardiner Area high schools, Fort Fairfield schools, and Oceanside High School in Rockland, according to public statements and official social media posts. The FBI has taken the lead on investigating, Sanford police said.

Michael Sauschuck, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety, addresses the media outside Sanford High School on Tuesday. At right is Matthew Nelson, superintendent of schools in Sanford. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck said none of the calls was credible and there were no shooters or injuries at any schools. Speaking from the entrance of Sanford Regional High School, he said the calls were “callous and inhumane” acts against Maine children and communities.


The hoaxes, commonly referred to as swatting, are becoming more common across the country, but this is the first time Maine has dealt with them on a large scale. Now, local, state and federal investigators are trying to find the male caller or callers who used an internet phone to falsely report the shootings.

Before Tuesday, there had been at least 181 similar swatting incidents in schools across the country this school year, according to the Educator’s School Safety Network, an Ohio-based nonprofit that compiles and analyzes school violence and threats. Typically, false reports are made about multiple schools at the same time, said Amy Klinger, the organization’s co-founder.

“The problem is schools can’t assume, especially when it first begins, that it’s a hoax and not really happening,” she said. “When it’s an active shooter report, they have literally minutes to make a decision of what to do. You have to err on the side of safety.”

The result, Klinger said, is a full tactical response that has a far-reaching and traumatic impact.

Parents wait outside Sanford High School Tuesday morning after several Maine schools received hoax threats of active shooters. Gregory Rec/Staff photographer

“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,” U.S. Attorney Darcie N. McElwee said in a statement Tuesday. “An unfortunate consequence of hoaxes like today’s is that false reports can make people question the validity of future threats. It is vital that we all remain vigilant.”

As Sanford police searched the building and evacuated students, the school department sent a message to parents saying the active shooter threat was not believed to be credible and that no one had been injured. But parents’ concerns were heightened as false information spread on social media.


In a Facebook group for city residents, parents posted that they were hearing from their children. Rumors quickly circulated that five people had been shot.

“The fact that we have social media and cellphones, that information gets propagated – and a lot of times it can be manipulated,” Sanford Police Lt. Matthew Gagne said.


The calls began early Tuesday morning. Some police departments reported the caller or callers gave details about the shooter and claimed people had been injured.

Busloads of students arrive at Sanford Memorial gym, where parents wait in line to pick them up Tuesday after the hoax call about an active shooter. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The Sanford dispatch center received the first phone call at 8:20 a.m. from an internet phone number, using Voice over Internet Protocol. The caller reported an active shooter – dressed in a black coat and black pants, with a long rifle – on the first floor of the high school, city officials said.

Sauschuck said police did not hesitate to enter the school.


“Everybody snapped to immediate reaction,” Sauschuck said. “They went in, as they should. They followed their training and, more importantly, they followed their hearts. As a country, we’ve seen some of these active shooter tragedies occur in other locations – and quite frankly, they were not handled properly, and because of that people lost their lives.”

Sauschuck said police are working to find and identify whoever was responsible for the hoax calls. But he said it likely would take some time.

Over the course of nearly two hours, students were evacuated from Sanford High and officers searched the school room by room. Students were taken by bus to Sanford Memorial Gym, where hundreds of parents lined Main Street, waiting to be reunited with them.

Concern started to lift as police learned that no one inside the school building was reporting gunfire or injuries, and  that the caller mentioned a room number that does not exist at the school, Sanford Superintendent Matthew Nelson said.

An armed officer walks along Alumni Boulevard. The road goes to Sanford High School, where a school shooter threat was determined to be a hoax. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In Portland, police said a 911 call reporting an active shooter came in to the dispatch center at 8:31 a.m. Interim Police Chief F. Heath Gorham said all 40 of the department’s on-duty officers were sent to the school.

The school immediately went into lockdown. Students were in the middle of changing classes at the time, said Aaron Townsend, assistant superintendent for Portland Public Schools.


Officers determined that there was no active threat and searched every classroom, Gorham said.

The calls to Maine schools continued throughout the morning, spreading fear.

The Brunswick Communications Center received a call at 8:44 a.m. Police Chief Scott Stewart said the male caller reported an active shooter at the high school and offered details about the location and the number of victims.

As police arrived, a school resource officer in the building said there was no shooting, Stewart said.

Near Augusta, more than 30 officers responded to Gardiner Area High School within 2 minutes of a report of an active shooter. The caller told dispatchers of “multiple individuals that had been injured,” Superintendent Pat Hopkins said.

One student on the unofficial Gardiner-area Facebook page, wrote of “lots of police presence” and said she and her classmates were “barricading the door” and “have no idea what’s happening.”



A report of a mass shooting, false or not, has an emotional impact on students, teachers and parents, Gagne said.

“It’s extremely stressful and traumatic,” the Sanford police lieutenant said. “These are the things you see play out in the media. This is the first time anything like this has come to a Sanford school. The fallout for students and teachers will probably be long felt.”

Sanford Fire Chief Steve Benotti said the training first responders have received paid off.

“I think we can count this as a win today,” he said. “Thank God we didn’t have anything actually happen at the school today.”

Sanford High School and the regional technical center will be closed Wednesday, but counselors will be available for students and staff, said Nelson, the Sanford superintendent.


“Our people have been through a lot today,” he said. “We want to make sure, first of all, that we’re all OK.”

Nelson acknowledged how difficult it was for the school department simultaneously to respond to what may have been a real threat to students and try to communicate accurate information to parents.

“(It’s) very challenging when … you’re not sure it’s credible or not,” he said. “We practice these (scenarios) for a reason.”

First responders block off streets around Portland High School after responding to a call about an active shooter at the school. It was quickly determined to be a hoax. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Shortly after 11 a.m., Portland High School began dismissing students who did not want to remain in the building. Those who could not or did not want to leave were allowed to stay and were provided food and support, said Townsend, the assistant superintendent.

“It’s stressful, it’s intense,” Townsend said. “Certainly for many of our students and parents who have other experiences, it can be traumatic.”

While police across Maine were responding to the schools, social media sites that are “not reputable” were pushing out inaccurate information, which heightened the stress, said Gorham, Portland’s interim police chief.

“An event like this certainly puts everyone on edge,” he said.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Emily Duggan contributed to this report.

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