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Monday, Feb 26, 2024

Middlebury becomes part of string of hoax shooter calls nationwide

After the Middlebury Police Department (MPD) received report that an active shooter had entered Davis Family Library on Sunday, April 9, Middlebury students studying in the library were suddenly confronted by armed officers ushering many of them to shelter in the printer room. A few hours earlier at Boston University (BU), students received a similar alert that there was a report of an active shooter situation.

Both active shooter reports were later determined to be unsubstantiated. In the case of Middlebury, the caller did not identify themselves, and after arriving on site, MPD reported that the threat appeared to have low credibility based on the situation at the library. When asked for a location, the caller to BU said “the University of Boston,” a clue that the call was a hoax. The Boston University Police Department responded to the call only to find no shooter.

These fake active shooter calls are identified as hoax calls, sometimes called “swatting calls,” meaning that a caller used a fraudulent phone number with the goal of tricking law enforcement agencies into responding with a SWAT team to the fabricated emergency. The hoax call to Middlebury follows a national trend of increased false shooting reports to schools over the past few weeks.

This February, law enforcement agencies across Vermont responded to swatting calls reporting active shooters in nearby K-12 schools. Students at Montpelier High School watched as police surveyed the school grounds. According to Commissioner of Public Safety Jennifer Morrison in a Vermont Public story, law enforcement quickly identified the calls to be a pattern of coordinated hoax due to the volume of the calls and the similarity of their messages.

Although the calls were fake, they caused real harm. Students at Middlebury reported an abnormal sense of tension following the event. At BU, a user posted to the BU subreddit following the incident: “I feel dumb for being shaken up, nothing bad actually happened…so why can I not stop shaking? My heart is racing.”

Earlier this month, four Harvard University seniors, all of whom are Black, were woken up by a banging sound on their door, when Harvard University Police Department (HUPD) officers arrived at their suite and ordered them into the hallway at gunpoint. According to reporting from the Harvard Crimson, HUPD was responding to a false 911 call about an armed individual in the undergraduate suite.

The incident caused real psychological and emotional harm to the students. Jarah K. Cotton, a resident of the suite, wrote in an email to The Crimson on Monday, “We were all extremely scared, particularly because my roommates and I are Black students who have been bombarded our whole lives with stories and images portraying how situations such as this had ended up terribly.”

Swatting calls affect members of the community to different extents. According to reporting by The Campus, Arthur Martins ’23.5, an international student, said he was never trained in a lockdown or active shooter drill. Following the event, student groups such as the International Student Organization have organized community gatherings in light of the event.

Morrison told Vermont Public that these hoax calls likely violate state and federal terrorism laws.

“If the assumption that these are swatting calls are true, this is terrorism to invoke fear and chaos in a community,” Morrison said. “So I can think of no other motivation than some depraved person or entity perpetrates these calls to upset communities and create havoc.”