Natashea Brown, Columbus Municipal School District’s chief school resource officer, had just finished her normal patrol of the high school campus at about 11 a.m. Friday when she learned someone had called 911 claiming there was an active shooter there.
According to the 911 recording, which Brown later listened to, the caller gave a specific description of the alleged shooter, the type of weapon being used and the number of victims who had been shot.
Brown knew there was no actual threat on campus and informed law enforcement already en route. Nevertheless, when a full-force response from Columbus Police Department and Lowndes County Sheriff’s Office arrived moments later, the campus was on lockdown, and officers swept the building for any sign of a threat. When they found none, Brown issued the all-clear just before noon and normal school operations resumed.
CHS, along with others in Mississippi, became the latest victims in the growing nationwide nuisance of “swatting” — callers reporting faux active shooter situations to law enforcement agencies — interim CPD chief Doran Johnson said during a joint press conference with Brown on Saturday at the municipal complex.
“The people making these calls … they want to cause confusion,” he said. “We don’t know the particular motive, whether they’re trying to draw out law enforcement or if they’re trying to cause disruption in the school. … It’s causing both of those things.”
Johnson said the Federal Bureau of Investigation is working with local agencies to identify a suspect, meaning that person could face federal charges, along with a litany of state-level felony counts, once caught.
“At this point, we’re trying to ascertain whether it’s coming locally, whether it’s domestic or even coming from a foreign country,” he said.
The false alarm, and the necessary protocols that came with it, weren’t law enforcement’s only challenges Friday, both chiefs said. The trauma, even for a fake call, was palpable inside the school, and Johnson said he had heard reports a teacher fainted.
Shortly after lockdown began, students started texting and calling their parents, and Brown said between 80 and 100 parents came to the campus while police were still on scene. Many of those parents were texting instructions to their children that conflicted with the school’s.
“Students are taking directives from us and school staff on what they’re supposed to do, and they’re getting directives from their parents too,” she said. “We had some parents telling students to walk out (of the school). We want to get on the same page … so in the event that something happens, everyone understands their role.”
Once the lockdown was lifted, droves of parents checked out their child for the rest of the day.
Both chiefs spoke during the press conference about the dangers of parents converging on a school campus during an active shooter scene and blocking paths for emergency responders to get where they’re needed.
Johnson said some parents on Friday became “unruly and disruptive” but none were arrested.
“Parents, understandably, are concerned about their kids and want to come to their rescue, but that can cause a little disturbance in how law enforcement needs to deal with the situation,” Johnson said. “… The last thing we want to do is to have to arrest parents. We know people are nervous, upset, scared.
“We need the parents’ help in calming the situation down and calm their kids down … so school work can settle back into normalcy and so the kids can settle back,” he said.
During a possible active shooter situation, Brown said the campus will set up a staging area for parents to wait and receive updates. The school district also issues information through avenues such as email and social media.
Once the threat is cleared, parents will always have the option to check out their child, she said.
Johnson said regardless of whether the reported threat is real or fake, officers are trained to always respond as if it is real. As problems like “swatting” become more prevalent, he acknowledged keeping up officer intensity for those responses poses a challenge.
“That can become a big issue. That’s something we have to drill into our officers,” Johnson said. “Every incident, you have to take it seriously, respond the same way and not get complacent, not get relaxed. … Until we confirm it’s false, we’re going to respond with full force. … The very time you get relaxed, it might be real.”
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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