PORTAGE, Mich. (WOOD) — A rash of fake shooting reports described by investigators as a “coordinated campaign” drew police to high schools around the state on Tuesday morning.
Michigan State Police sent a release to schools saying agencies around the state reported similar details — the caller had a heavy accent and stated a school’s name and address. The caller said they were a teacher in the school and reported that a student had shot another student. The caller gave a room number that would ultimately be “found to not exist in the school,” MSP said.
THREATS QUICKLY DEBUNKED
Portage Department of Public Safety Chief Nick Armold confirmed to News 8 that Portage Northern High School received one such “hoax” call.
“It’s disruptive without a doubt, it causes fear both in staff and students, as well as families,” Portage Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Michael Pascoe said.
Portage DPS, Kalamazoo County sheriff’s deputies and state police rushed there around 9:30 a.m. after a call reporting an active shooter and multiple shots fired.
“We had units on scene within about 90 seconds, and probably, I would imagine within 30 seconds after that and conferring with school officials, we were able to ascertain it was a fake prank call,” Portage DPS Deputy Director Jeff VanderWiere said.
School continued after the all-clear was given.
“We’re exploring all possibilities but we have no indication that it was a student that did this,” VanderWiere said.
Portage DPS believes the caller dialed a non-emergency number to avoid a line that would be recorded.
“Technology itself is designed to mask who the suspect is,” VanderWiere said. “So much like fraud cases and stuff like that, the suspect that’s doing this is trying to hide from us.”
A call about Muskegon High School that came in just before 10 a.m. also turned out to be “a complete hoax,” Muskegon Police Department Chief Tim Kozal said. The school resource officer already at the building determined almost immediately that it was not credible — in part because the room number listed in the call was the assistant principal’s office, not a classroom.
“For us, that kind of deflated it a little bit,” Muskegon Public Schools Superintendent Matthew Cortez said.
Police responded but they were able to leave within minutes. Cortez said the school entered “secure mode” — in which the school is secured and checked — before the all-clear was given.
Muskegon police said the call came from out of the area and an untraceable number, likely a Google number or a 911-only phone.
“Everything that I’m hearing indicates that our kids had nothing to do with it,” Cortez said.
There were similar fake threats at Battle Creek Central, Harper Creek and Benton Harbor high schools. Battle Creek Public Schools said its on-site school liaison officer quickly determined the call was fake.
East of Lansing, a report of an active shooter at Okemos High School was made just after 9 a.m. Police responded in force, searched the building, soon learned there was no threat and gave the all-clear. Okemos canceled classes for the day.
A similar call was also made to Jackson High School, with the district saying on social media that it got a hoax call from an “unknown Google number.” The school said it got an all clear from police.
Jackson Public Schools thanked police for their quick response, saying they were “on the scene within minutes of the phone call in full force with the utmost care and concern for the safety of our students and staff.”
WJRT in Flint reported that a similar call caused a large police presence at Nouvel Catholic High School in Saginaw. Police believed the threat was not legitimate but are still investigating. MSP referenced other threats in Detroit and Ann Arbor.
FAKE THREATS ARE A CRIME
MSP said it had heard of “numerous reports of bomb threats and active shooter ‘swatting’ calls to schools throughout the Fifth District, around the state & nationally.” Swatting is making a fake call meant to prompt an unnecessary strong police response.
State police also mentioned several Walmart stores were involved in false bomb threat reports in Coldwater and Oakland County on Monday.
They tweeted a warning that it’s a crime to make such bogus reports.
“Parents, this is a good time to remind the kids,” MSP tweeted. “Usually, after a large incident like this we get copy cat calls for days following the incident. While some may consider it a joke, it is a good way to ruin your life if convicted of a false threat of terrorism.”
Anyone with any information about Tuesday’s threats was asked to call 911, their local police agency, or the confidential school safety tip line OK2SAY at 855.565.2729 or by texting 652729.
“Threats of violence in our schools disrupt the classroom, tax our local law enforcement agencies and harm our students’ sense of safety,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement. “Whether these are real threats made by those intent on doing harm or pranks made by kids trying to get a day off, they are real crimes with real consequences. It’s critical that adults and students alike understand the seriousness of these threats and the criminal charges they could face.”
The state AG’s Office said it was in touch with law enforcement and would help if needed.
A bomb threat can land the caller in prison for up to four years and if someone is convicted of communicating a threat of terrorism, they could spend 20 years behind bars.
“Whether or not you had the ability to carry the threat out, really what we’re looking for is was … a threat of violence made and whether it was true or not true, the statue doesn’t require that to be the case,” Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson said.
Michigan has laws that specifically deal with threats to schools, ranging from a one-year misdemeanor for making a threat without any overt intent to carry it out to a 10-year felony if the person actually made plans.
“After (the shooting at) Oxford (High School), there was a number of calls like this,” Cortez, the Muskegon superintendent, said. “Our state police and our local police and our county sheriff’s office, they took every threat, they assessed every threat, every single threat and they brought to justice everybody that was behind it.”
Those copycat threats led to a strong response from prosecutors.
“Once we determine who the source of the threat is, then we move into action, making sure that they have no access to weapons, evaluated to make sure that they’re not a threat to themselves or others and based off all that information, then we start deciding on what the next steps are to hold them accountable,” Hilson said.
“When you want to make a terroristic threat of this nature and try to cause panic in kids and parents and the community, we can’t just allow that to occur,” Cortez said. “There should be certain that the consequences will fit the actions that they took.”
Portage police added that the FBI was investigating the spate of threats.
Technology can make the threats hard to trace, but Hilson said law enforcement is highly motivated to track down whoever is responsible.
“Law enforcement is willing to take that extra step in order to get to the source because we all want to know the source,” Hilson said. “We don’t want the unknown left out there.”
— News 8’s David Horak, Kyle Mitchell and Anna Skog contributed to this report.