A rash of hoax threats at schools across the Baltimore region are forcing law enforcement, students and teachers into protective postures, but some educators say pupils are showing admirable resilience as they grapple with the upheaval.
Early this month, an email that came from a foreign country triggered a stronger police presence at Towson High School. In October, several Howard County Public School System high schools received threats of impending violence, coming from an overseas source.
These hoax threats are referred to as “swatting” – taking their name from police SWAT teams that often arrive at schools to respond. Perpetrators attempt to evacuate schools and trigger a police response that may include special weapons and tactics teams going on to campus.
Some, including administrators, have expressed concerns that the attacks may create an atmosphere of fear within schools. But one Howard County high school social studies teacher, has taken inspiration from the way his own students handled a recent swatting incident at Reservoir High School in mid-October.
“I think it’s akin to election disinformation from foreign adversaries,” teacher Lloyd Lemie said. “If they have goals of scaring kids, or destabilizing schools, it’s not working.”
Lemie said he was impressed by how capably his own students handled a swatting incident at Reservoir High School in Fulton. First the fire alarm went off that October day, he recalled. Students were evacuated to parking lots and fields adjacent to the high school. But then they were instructed to move farther out, to the middle school and elementary school located across the road from the high school.
“That’s when you could see the levels of concern rise,” Lemie said. “What I said to my students was ‘Hey, I know it’s not a drill. I don’t think you’re in danger, but I need you to move across the street with me. And I need you to stay with me, because I’m going to count you 16 times during this.’”
The veteran teacher expressed admiration for both students and staff, on how the evacuation was handled. American school populations regularly drill for lockdowns and evacuations from the threat of active shooters.
“We live in a world where this is a reality for our students,” Lemie said. “I think our young adolescents are tougher than we give them credit for. I think they are a little bit scarred from living in a world that threatens them as targets, just (being) the potential target for that kind of terrorism and violence. But I think most of our students do handle it with some kind of grace and resilience that we don’t always know that they have.”
Howard County Public School System administrators declined to comment for this story, and a Baltimore County schools representative was not immediately available.. The FBI’s Baltimore office released a statement to Baltimore Fishbowl, reflecting the international nature of these attacks and an ongoing investigation.
“Most swatting cases are handled by local and state law enforcement agencies, however, swatting overall has increasingly become a federal law enforcement issue and the FBI often provides resources and guidance in these investigations, and may recommend cases for federal prosecution,” said FBI spokesperson Shayne Buchwald-Nickoles.
The FBI estimates there are hundreds of swatting incidents annually. According to the Howard County Police Department, county schools had not received swatting threats prior to October, and there have been no incidents in November to date.
Nationally, the National Association of School Resource Officers stated on its website that during the recent surge, as of September 26, there had been swatting attacks in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, Texas, and Virginia.
An investigation of swatting in late October by National Public Radio pointed toward the possibility of a single perpetrator from Ethiopia.
Howard County Public School System Superintendent Michael Martirano sent an email to families on October 17, acknowledging incidents at River Hill High School in Clarksville, as well as Long Reach High School in Columbia, and Centennial High School in Ellicott City – as well as at Reservoir High.
Martirano told families in the email: “These threats do nothing but create fear and disruption to the learning environment and must stop. I encourage you and your children to report any information that poses a risk to anyone’s physical or emotional safety.”
Upon reconvening, Lemie gave his students the opportunity to express their view on the evacuations through both writing and speaking openly about them.
“I got responses from ‘I felt really threatened,’ to ‘I was annoyed and inconvenienced,’” he said. “It really was a very adult range of reactions that they had.”
But during this school-shooting era of American life, school evacuations are seen in a much different light then they once were. Which is perhaps what these foreign adversaries are counting on.
Students are instructed on how to react to an active-shooter situation. Teachers and administrators are trained on how to manage kids through an attack, if it comes to that.
“We don’t think of ourselves as first responders,” Lemie said of teachers. “But you can’t have one of these evacuations without putting yourself in the shoes of ‘Oh, am I going to have to put myself in between a shooter and my students?’ As an educator you always think about that.”
Howard County Police Department stated that they are in contact with the district’s school resource officers on an almost daily basis.
“Significant police resources are devoted to these types of incidents,” Howard County Police Department spokesperson Sherry Llewellyn told Baltimore Fishbowl. “They involve the SRO teams, patrol response, tactical teams if needed, and investigation of the source by the criminal investigations bureau.”
With the spread of swatting attacks around the United States, answers seem in short supply. But some see the resilience and integrity of our school communities as the true best deterrent to these attacks.
“We’ll keep working to make kids understand what they’re looking at and what we can do about it,” Lemie said. “This is when you really want your administrators to earn their money, and they were awesome. The calm, and the information, and the ‘Hey this is what we need to do,’—it started at the top and went right down through the students.”