'We're coming after you': 11 hoax active shooter calls made to Maine schools

The calls kicked off a police response from agencies across the state and federal government


By Matt Byrne
Portland Press Herald

SANFORD, Maine — Erica Rabidoux's nightmare began with a text message from her daughter, a student at Sanford High School.

The school was on lockdown, and there may be a person with a gun. No one knew what was going on.

At 8:20 a.m., someone called a dispatcher to report an ongoing shooting, kicking off a police response from agencies across the state and federal government. The report also triggered a cascade of text messages from Sanford teenagers to their families, who waited for nearly an hour to learn if Sanford would become the next American community shattered by a school shooting.

It was all a hoax. But the fear and the panic were real, parents said. Some early, false reports of casualties circulated on social media and were rebroadcast by parents and students desperate for accurate information.

Official word that there was no real threat came about 9:30 a.m., parents said.

"It's terrifying," said Rabidoux, 33, as she left Memorial Gymnasium, her arm wrapped tightly around Alexis' shoulders. "No parent wants to get that text message from their child that they're scared and they don't what's happening and that they love you."

Alexis Rabidoux said her teacher, a substitute, struggled to lock the classroom door. Her classmates drew the blinds, covered a window to the hallway and pushed furniture against the door. In the halls, police moved from room to room. The experience felt like a dream to Alexis, until she saw the big rifles they carried.

"It didn't feel real," she said. "I was thinking of my family."

RUMORS RAMPANT

At first, good information was hard to come by.

Camille Noldan, 43, of Wells, spent more than 30 minutes in a panic when she saw the message from her daughter, a student at the district technical school that shares a campus with the high school: "There's an active shooter in the building."

Noldan called Wells High School, their home district, and someone told her the same thing: There was an active shooter in Sanford and there wasn't anything they could do.

Someone else sent her a Facebook post claiming there were multiple casualties, and that a LifeFlight helicopter was involved. She raced to the high school.

"I could see all the police," she said. "I started to break down a little bit. There's no real protocol."

Nyria Bicens, 36, has insisted for years that her daughter keep her cellphone around at all times during the school day, no matter what the school rules say. Bicens said she felt the sinking feeling of panic when news spread Tuesday of an active shooter at the school.

Her daughter's message was alarming but reassuring: "Everything is OK, the police are here. But the school is going into lockdown."

"I'm from the Bronx and was in high school when 9/11 happened," said Bicens, who moved to Maine 12 years ago. "I knew if something crazy happened, I wanted my kids to be able to reach me. I did not expect this in Maine."

Traffic was jammed on Main Street in Sanford as police, EMTs and school officials marshaled a response. Then parents were told to go to the gymnasium.

PORTLAND ALSO HOAXED

At Portland High School, students were in the middle of changing classes when the building went into immediate lockdown.

Hannah Smart, a senior, was in her first-period Latin class when she heard the announcement over the school's intercom.

"It was horrifying," said Smart, 17. "I remember thinking for a second, what would I do? I don't want to die. What if someone came in and ended up shooting at us, do I pretend I was shot? You see videos of that, people who hide under their classmates. I don't know what I would do."

Even though there was no shooter at the school, the experience was scary. "You never know, and we were there for hours," Smart said.

She worried because her classroom is across from a parking garage and there were no blinds on one of the windows, so she didn't know if a shooter would be able to see in. "You can directly see into the classroom, so that wasn't fun," she said.

She said she had her phone and kept refreshing an article about the incident to find out more. At the same time, students were texting one another on their phones and rumors were swirling. "There was a while when people thought at least five people were shot," Smart said. "It turns out they weren't, but you don't know and you can only think about the worst-case scenario in that situation."

Ryder Lauzier, 15, a freshman, was on his way to his first class when he heard teachers yelling at students to get into classrooms. "As soon as I got in there, everyone was just in the corner of the classroom and the lights were off," Lauzier said.

He said he wasn't scared and thought maybe it was a drill: "I just didn't know what was happening."

LINGERING EFFECTS

Anyone touched by Tuesday's scenario could feel the lingering effects of the traumatic experience, said Greg Marley, a clinical social worker and director of suicide prevention for NAMI Maine, a mental health advocacy organization.

"I hate to call it that, but the new normal that includes mass casualties in a school setting leaves everybody feeling less safe," Marley said. "The fear is real. It's one phone call away, as we learned today."

Marley said parents should hold their children close, reassure them that they are safe, but also talk with them about what to do when something goes wrong, and they shouldn't be fearful of reaching out for professional help.

"Hold them close. Love them," he said. "Reassure them, not blindly, but support where their world is safe. And be ready for their questions, be ready for their tears, be ready for their anger."

By 10 a.m. in Sanford, parents had descended on the Sanford Memorial Gymnasium, the crowd large enough that cellphone service became sporadic.

By 10:45 a.m., a school official with a megaphone was explaining how they'd be reunited with their children — and asking for patience.

"This will be a slow process," the official said.

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