Public Safety

Phil Scott decries ‘act of terrorism’ after police respond to hoax threats at 21 Vermont schools

Law enforcement agencies respond to Montpelier High School on Wednesday, Feb. 8. Barre Deputy Police Chief Larry Eastman, who was on scene, said there was a “report of some kind of shooting” that he understood “was not true.” Vermont State Police said several hoax threats had been reported at schools across the state as part of a nationwide campaign. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

Updated at 6:07 p.m.

Vermont police agencies responded to 21 fake reports of violent threats at schools across the state Wednesday morning, part of a coordinated hoax that Gov. Phil Scott decried as terrorism.

“I must reiterate these calls were a hoax, an act of terrorism designed to create chaos and stoke fear that can be exploited,” Scott said during a noontime press conference held in response to the calls, where he was joined by officials from education, public safety, the administration and the Legislature.

“I realize how unnerving this is for students, teachers, parents and Vermonters alike,” Scott said. “Now that we’ve identified this was a hoax, my hope is that we can use this energy to come together because unity is the most powerful way to make sure terrorists don’t achieve their goals.”

In a press release issued at 10:12 Wednesday morning, as police were seen at several Vermont schools, Vermont State Police said none of the threats were “believed to be credible.”

“Initial investigation in Vermont has determined all the calls were placed via a VOIP service” — which uses the internet — “and none originated from a spoofed 802 area code as some initial reporting had indicated,” state police said in an update Wednesday evening. “The calls also appear to have been made by a person and are not believed at this time to have been automated.”

At the press conference, Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Jennifer Morrison said she was not aware of any other states receiving similar school threats Wednesday, though she noted that Maine and New Hampshire had experienced similar hoax threats in recent months.

The calls targeted schools across the state, from Brattleboro Union High School in the south to North Country Union High School in Derby and Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington in the north.

In the capital Wednesday morning, a small crowd of onlookers stood across the street from Montpelier High School, watching as several emergency vehicles flashed red and blue lights in the parking lot.

Barre Deputy Police Chief Larry Eastman, who was on scene, said there was a “report of some kind of shooting” that he understood “was not true.”

Tom Allen, left, and Andrew LaRosa, who work in Montpelier schools, stand outside of Montpelier High School on Wednesday. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

Montpelier High senior Bella Wawrzyniak said she was running late when she got to school and saw an ambulance in the parking lot. She called a friend in one of her classes, who said they were in “full lockdown,” Wawrzyniak said.

“Shooting — that was where my mind went,” she said. She said she experienced her first lockdown drill in middle school and now goes through them every few months.

At the press conference, Morrison said about 20 Vermont law enforcement agencies and one town office received calls between 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m reporting active shooter situations targeting local area schools.

"None of these calls have been determined to be legitimate," Morrison said. "The characteristics of these calls are similar in nature and appear to be part of a hoax-threat scam sometimes referred to as swatting."

Calls came into law enforcement agencies' main lines at dispatch centers, and not the emergency 911 line, Morrison said.

She said that each of the incidents in Vermont is under investigation and that additional hoax calls could occur.

“We urge anyone who receives such calls to take it seriously and immediately report it to your local law enforcement authorities,” Morrison said. “Do not just dismiss threatening calls as a hoax.”

Morrison said it was too early in the investigation to know the specific motivation of the person or people making the calls or why the 21 schools were targeted. “If the assumption (that) these are swatting calls is true, this is terrorism to invoke fear and chaos into a community,” she said. 

Morrison said she could not release the specific messages sent to the agencies, though she said they used a similar voice and involved a threat of a shooting.

Montpelier police, in a press release later Wednesday afternoon, reported a few details about the nature of the call into its dispatch center at 9:25 a.m.

“The unknown male caller reported that shots were fired in a specific room of the high school, two students were injured and that there was a fight in progress,” Montpelier police wrote. “Dispatch was told that the shooter was wearing a blue shirt and black pants. It was noted that the call came from an out of state telephone number.”

Col. Matthew Birmingham, director of the Vermont State Police, said at the press conference that it’s too early to tell exactly where the calls originated from, though he added that “a lot of these swatting events” originate outside the United States. He said Vermont law enforcement agencies are working with federal authorities on trying to determine the origin of the calls.

Rob Evans, Vermont’s school safety liaison, said that faculty, staff, students and parents may experience a variety of mental health consequences from the phone calls, and may need time and help to recover.  

“It will be important for our schools and our communities to make sure people know where to get those additional resources if they need help," Evans said.

Officials who spoke at Wednesday’s press conference talked about the need to review how various entities responded to the reported threats.

“In the days ahead, after all the facts are gathered, we'll debrief on this incident so we can build upon and strengthen our response,” Scott said.

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Alan J. Keays

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