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How a northern Illinois high school responded to a fake school shooting 'swatting' threat

A front-facing view of Freeport High School, an old multi-storied brick building.
Freeport School District 145
Freeport High School

Last week, police in 19 Illinois counties received false school shooting threats, known as swatting, on the same day. Some knew it was a hoax immediately. Some went into lockdown. Auburn High School in Rockford and Freeport High School were "swatted." WNIJ education reporter Peter Medlin spoke with Freeport School District spokesperson Paulette Williams-Thomas about how they responded.

Peter Medlin: Did the local police and the district know quickly that it was a swatting call? And if they did, why was that so apparent right off the bat?

Paulette Williams-Thomas: The local police received the call and, of course, they dispatched immediately, with multiple squads reporting to Freeport High School. Upon their arrival at the school, which just took a few minutes, they were able to tell us already that there was a high probability that it could be a swatting call. They followed that up with a series of questions to the high school administration, which helped them very quickly determined that it was a hoax. They did, however, walk the entirety of the building to make sure that everything was clear. And they left the building probably 15-20 minutes after that determination.

Peter Medlin: Do you know why it was so apparent that it was a hoax?

Paulette Williams-Thomas: I think the word was already going around that this potentially was a hoax.

Peter Medlin: They were seeing it at other districts already? So. they kind of thought it was along the same lines?

Paulette Williams-Thomas: Yes.

Peter Medlin: So, the school didn't go on lockdown or anything like that?

Paulette Williams-Thomas: Right. Now, the police department did not order the building into a lockdown as a result of, one: quickly realizing that this was a hoax. And because students were already in a teach-in-place mode due to the SAT testing that was being conducted.

Peter Medlin: How much did the students know at the time? Did they know that there was a situation that was being investigated? How do you communicate that information to students and their families trying to convey the utmost caution, while also not scaring people too much if you do believe that it's a hoax?

Paulette Williams-Thomas: Exactly. So, the testing process was uninterrupted for students at the immediate realization that there was no immediate danger. Parents and guardians of the students were notified immediately upon that determination. They received notification from the principal just outlining the situation, assuring them that there was no threat of danger and the building was determined to be in the clear.

Peter Medlin: Is that just like an announcement the principal makes over the intercom to the students or how does that work?

Paulette Williams-Thomas: It was not announced to the students. The students went through that testing process uninterrupted. There was a robo-call sent to the parents.

Peter Medlin: The students weren't informed that there was a potential situation until afterwards?

Paulette Williams-Thomas: Correct. They stayed in test mode without disruption.

Peter Medlin: In Rockford, they talked about providing students with extra mental health supports after a situation like this. I'm curious how the district handled that in Freeport because, again, on one hand, nothing ended up happening. But, on the other hand, even the threat of a potential shooting, even a hoax of a potential shooting, can be traumatic.

Paulette Williams-Thomas: Understandable. So, in our regular mode of operation, we offer families and students these types of support. Again, because there was no threat to the students, and they were never in harm's way, their day was not disrupted. Parents were encouraged in the call they received from the principal to reach out to the school with any questions or concerns.

Peter Medlin: Is there anything to learn or take away from something like this, even from a school operation standpoint?

Paulette Williams-Thomas: Absolutely. Always have a plan and be prepared to act upon the plan. The Freeport School District has invested much time into safety plans as well as into threat assessment.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.