There were some tense moments at Charlottesville High School Monday as an active shooter was reported to local authorities around 1:20 p.m., eventually turning out to be a hoax.
The hoax occurred the same day as a similar hoax at E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg. Together, they make up two of more than 30 similar reported instances across the county in the past week, in school districts from California to Illinois to Florida.
The hoax plunged the school into lockdown as numerous officers from multiple jurisdictions converged on the scene.
At least five marked and unmarked police units headed out from the downtown Charlottesville police station and raced down East Market Street with sirens and lights ablaze. Within minutes, officers were inside the building and moving room-by-room to check on the safety of students.
It took 22 minutes before the call was called as a hoax. CHS principal Rashaad Pitt quickly put a statement on the school website for parents.
“The message went to 911 and falsely indicated that a number of CHS students were hurt,” wrote Pitt, who said the school had no evidence of such activity but went ahead with a lockdown so police could perform a thorough search.
Pitt added that he subsequently learned that the hoax was also perpetrated in other communities. Those communities include Lynchburg.
“At approximately 1:19 p.m., an unknown caller dialed into Charlottesville Police Department services with reports of an active shooter on CHS campus. It has since been confirmed that this call was a hoax,” city police said in prepared statement after the school had been cleared. “Upon receiving the call, CHS reported no unusual activity. Both Charlottesville Fire Department and [police] responded and secured the perimeter. After [police] conducted a search, they identified no unusual activity or threat and gave the all-clear for CHS to resume their normal activity.”
“Calling in a false report to the police is illegal; our officers are currently investigating this crime,” the statement read.
In the early morning hours of Sept. 9, the Albemarle County Police Department responded to a threat to Western Albemarle High School made through social media.
“After an investigation, officers determined this threat not to be credible. The responsible juvenile will be charged,” police said at the time.
While the county call was a threat, the CHS call was of an active shooter and possible injuries, eliciting a quick response from police.
The school was not alone. Around the same time CHS was under lockdown, so were schools in Lynchburg, Culpeper and several schools in Hampton Roads. Locally, Eastern View High School in Culpeper County and E.C. Glass High School in Lynchburg saw similar hoaxes. Suffolk Police Department increased security at the Booker T. Washington Elementary School after calls.
Calls were also reported today in Illinois. National news organizations estimate that nearly three dozen of such hoax calls plagued American schools last week in Texas, California, Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas, Oregon, Illinois and Kansas. Some estimates indicate that more than 40 hoaxes have been called in the past week, including calls made today.
“This false report caused extreme stress and disruption at CHS and in our community,” wrote Pitt. “Counselors and mental health professionals are on hand at the school to speak with students and staff. We encourage families to check in with your students tonight.”
The spate of calls, which are nicknamed “SWAT calls” because they bring out police tactical teams often armed with assault rifles, has caught the eye of the FBI.
“The FBI is aware of numerous swatting incidents wherein a report of an active shooter at a school is made,” bureau officials posted on the agency’s Houston, Texas office Twitter page last week in the wake of a false report of “10 people shot” at a Texas school.
“In recent months, the FBI and law enforcement around the country have investigated a number of hoax threats of targeted violence against schools and other public places,” officials said on the FBI webpage. “These threats—often issued via text message or posted on social media—are taken very seriously. Hoax threats are not a joke, and they can have devastating consequences—both for the public and for the perpetrators.”
According to the FBI, a threat over social media, text message, or e-mail from another location is a federal crime under laws prohibiting threatening interstate communications. The penalty is a maximum five years in prison.