ROCHESTER, Minn. — Schools and law enforcement agencies across Minnesota were the targets of a large "swatting" campaign Wednesday, where multiple false calls were made about active shooters.
In Rochester, police confirmed a call came in shortly after 10 a.m. reporting a shooter, and said that call came over an internet-based phone with a different area code than the city's 507. Dozens of police officers, Olmsted County sheriff's deputies and additional first responders scrambled to the scene, only to discover the report was untrue.
"These types of incidents when real are probably some of the most horrific and horrendous things somebody may have to deal with in their career," Rochester Police Chief Jim Franklin told reporters. "There’s a huge sigh of relief that no one was injured, no one was harmed and this was not real."
Similar scenarios unfolded at Washburn High School in Minneapolis, plus schools in Austin, Alexandria, Cloquet, Mankato, New Ulm and St. Paul with valuable resources being deployed after reports of an active shooter. Fortunately all of those messages were also bogus, perhaps part of an organized effort targeting schools and communities across the country.
"Unfortunately, disruptive prank calls such as this have become a national trend. States like Texas, Virginia, and California have reported multiple calls of fake active shooter or mass casualty events at schools," St. Paul Police said in a statement in response to a false shooting report at Johnson High School. "This incident at Johnson High School is suspected to be part of that trend and is under investigation by the Saint Paul Police."
"We found other cities in the region received very similar calls using the same exact wording and that appears to mirror what has been happening in the past five days in the national media," confirmed Mankato Public Safety Director Amy Vokal after law enforcement was forced to respond to a local school.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) has confirmed at least 14 schools in the following cities received false active shooter reports Wednesday: Minneapolis, New Ulm, Mankato Fairmont, St. Paul, Rochester, Alexandria, Cloquet, Austin, Fergus Falls, Brainard, Rosemount, Grand Rapids and Bemidji. The agency sent out an alert telling districts, staff and students that the calls seem to be what is known as swatting, where a prank call is made in an attempt to trigger a large law enforcement response to a particular address.
"(BCA) is aware of multiple swatting incidents involving active shooter events or mass casualties at schools across Minnesota. Local law enforcement are responding. No incidents have turned out to be real," the alert reads. "Our Minnesota Fusion Center is tracking these reports and keeping local law enforcement apprised of the situation. States across the U.S. have experienced similar mass swatting attempts."
Drew Evans, superintendent of the Minnesota BCA, said the FBI is tracking the swatting incidents along with local agencies.
"This is an extremely big deal and it’s extremely disheartening to us when we see this activity," Evans said. "Unfortunately, in the U.S. we’ve had too many instances of real active shooters in our schools and communities. So when this happens it creates extreme panic in our schools and our community, from all our parents that send their kids to school everyday in a safe environment."
Evans explained that based on the similar voice and tone making the calls, it appears they came from one individual using an internet number.
The BCA reminding students and staff at schools to notify local law enforcement about threats to schools that are overheard or suspected. They can also contact the BCA through the agency's "See It Say It" app.
"The cause of panic and alarm this can cause in our communities and our parents is significant and for that reason we have to treat this very seriously," Evans said.
Someone who is convicted of gross misdemeanor swatting could be sentenced to a year in jail, a $3,000 fine or both. If someone is hurt or killed as a result of a swatting call, it becomes a felony and the person responsible could receive a 10-year prison sentence.
Minnesota is not alone in dealing with what appears to be a growing epidemic. Threats, or lies about threats are being made to schools across the country, leading to lockdowns, hiding procedures, police showing up and parents panicking.
Last week USA Today found there were 30 false active shooter or threats of violence in schools around the country. They've occurred in Texas, California, Florida, Arkansas, Oregon, Illinois, Kansas and Oklahoma, and Minnesota can now be added to that dubious list.
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