MERIDIAN TOWNSHIP, Mich. — A hoax phone call reporting an active shooter at Okemos High School Feb. 7 created a frightening scene for students as police swarmed the building only to discover that no shooting had taken place.
At around 9 a.m., a 911 dispatcher received a call from someone claiming that a student had been shot by another student and that the perpetrator was still at large. Dozens of law enforcement personnel responded almost immediately, storming the building with guns drawn as the lockdown alarms began to sound. Nobody was injured during the incident.
The practice known as “swatting” appeared to be part of a larger scheme. Around the same time that Tuesday, dispatchers in more than six school districts across the state received reports of shots fired. Officers responded to the calls swiftly at all locations and found no signs of danger being posed to students and staff inside after searching the buildings. It is being called a “coordinated campaign” by the FBI, who have opened an investigation into the case.
“Hoax threats can shut down schools, cause undue stress and fear to the public, and cost taxpayers a lot of money, not to mention ruin the future of those making the hoax threats as they’ll likely have a criminal record,” an FBI statement said. “We urge the public to remain vigilant and report any and all suspicious activity and/or individuals to law enforcement immediately.”
The swatting also demonstrated how easy it could be for a shooter to make a false report somewhere in order to tie up police resources and divert attention away from a real attack about to begin.
Detroit, Ann Arbor, Okemos, Portage, Saginaw, Battle Creek, Jackson, and Muskegon were among the areas throughout Michigan that received the phony calls.
“Our officers acted exactly how they are trained to do had this been a legitimate threat, which we assumed it was at the time,” said Bryan LeRoy, a School Resource Officer in Meridian Township, where Okemos is located. “The department is proud of how quickly our team had the situation under control.”
AJ Skidmore, a junior at Michigan State University, has a younger sister who is a student at Portage Northern High School. She was there Tuesday when the lockdown went into place.
“I was actually in the middle of lab so I didn’t see the texts from everyone until about an hour after everything happened,” Skidmore recalled. “I’m really glad my sister is okay. It’s just messed up that someone would do this as a joke or statement or whatever it was.”
The scare fits into the much larger issue of school shootings that have been plaguing the country for decades. Police and school officials know how seriously they have to take these threats in a day and age when a quick response could be the difference between life and death.
The community of Oxford, Michigan met the unthinkable when tragedy struck there late in 2021. What started as a normal day ended up a nightmare after four students were killed and seven others wounded in a shooting at the high school.
“Eight out of 10 school shootings, the shooter essentially warns others that they’re planning to do this,” said Steven Chermak, a professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University. “They may talk with their friends. Sometimes they tell it to teachers, sometimes they tell it to family members. And the stunning thing is there wasn’t a response to that at the Oxford shooting. There was a call for help that day, and they let the student stay in school.”
Dr. Chermak specializes in studying school shootings, mass shootings, terrorism and extremism, among other areas.
“Most of the kids who commit school shootings, they get their guns from home because they’re easily accessible,” Chermak said. “To be a responsible gun owner is not asking a lot.”
That’s exactly how the teenage shooter at Oxford got a hold of the murder weapon that day. His parents’ handgun wasn’t kept in a safe, allowing him to bring it to school in his backpack.
Fear will likely soon turn to frustration and anger with public officials in the communities targeted by the swatting. But for now, families are just relieved to know it was all a hoax.
Suspects caught making false reports or threats of terrorism toward schools or public facilities can face felony charges punishable by up to 20 years in prison.