When Maritza Cruz’s phone lit up with a text message from her teenage son Tuesday morning, a fresh but familiar wave of panic surged through her.
“We’re having a real lockdown,” he told her. “Don’t call.”
Cruz’s nightmare was short-lived: the threat at Framingham High School, where her son is a freshman, was a hoax, one of more than two dozen false alarms that led to lockdowns at schools across the state Tuesday. The lockdowns were prompted by a series of “swatting” calls to local law enforcement with false claims of campus shootings.
The calls, which came one day after the shooting that killed three children and three adults at a private school in Nashville, angered and unsettled parents like Cruz.
“It makes me want to pull him out of school or teach him at home or find another alternative,” Cruz said. “It’s just not safe these days.”
Hundreds of schools across the country have been terrorized in recent months by false reports of active shooters, an illegal practice known as swatting that often leads to chaos, alarm, and a heavy police response. Massachusetts endured a previous rash of swatting attacks last month, with phony threats of violence targeting schools in several communities, such as Boston, Amesbury, and Westfield.
On Tuesday, schools in Foxborough, Franklin, Haverhill, Milford, Northampton, and Pittsfield were all subjected to similar hoaxes.
“My heart was in my throat,” said Rose Shea, whose son is a junior at Malden Catholic High School, where a fake active shooting report also was called in. She described the time she spent waiting for a message from the school confirming the threat was unfounded as “the scariest 32 minutes of my life.”
“I didn’t know if that was real — and it wasn’t, but it could have been,” she added. “It could have been a real day for me because it was a real day for Nashville.”
State Police officials said various law enforcement agencies were still investigating the source or sources of the calls Wednesday, and declined to speculate about possible motives.
Those caught reporting false emergencies to police can face up to five years in federal prison for issuing threatening interstate communications, in addition to local and state charges.
“The FBI takes swatting very seriously because it puts innocent people at risk,” said FBI spokesperson Kristen Setera. “While we have no information to indicate a specific and credible threat, we will continue to work with our local, state, and federal law enforcement partners to gather, share, and act upon threat information as it comes to our attention.”
For students, swatting can pose long-term psychological consequences, said Robert Bardwell, executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association. Many students, particularly those with mental health issues, operate best on a predictable schedule, he said. A disruption can be traumatizing, even though the threat isn’t real.
“When you have a situation like a school lockdown, your brain and your body go into a defense mechanism,” he said. “Whatever you’re supposed to be doing is not happening.”
Bardwell noted that the hoaxes are more harmful than similar scares like bomb threats in prior generations, in part due to the frequency of real shootings, but also due to technology. Students can text their families during lockdowns, whereas in the past parents may not have found out about a threat until after it had been resolved. Cruz is not alone in wanting to pull her son out of school after the hoax, Bardwell said.
“It used to be you entrusted your child to the school system unequivocally,” Bardwell said. “The trust in education, in general, is not what it used to be.”
Tuesday’s swatting attacks, he noted, also coincided with 10th-grade MCAS testing.
“It’s already a stressful environment for 10th-graders taking this really important test, and then we add in, ‘You have to evacuate because the building might not be safe,’ ” Bardwell said. “Every situation is different, but it’s no different than a child who’s traumatized because of gun violence or home issues. These students will have long-term impacts on relationships, and being able to socialize, and being able to trust.”
After a hoax, Bardwell said, some districts will try to return to testing or class as if nothing happened, but often schools will provide spaces where students can talk to a counselor.
Foxborough parent Tara Marinucci said her daughter, a high school sophomore, was “really freaked out” by the swatting incident Tuesday.
“She thought there was a shooter in the school,” Marinucci said. “All she could hear was the police running through the school and their walkie-talkies going back and forth.”
Marinucci’s daughter was barricaded in a classroom with the lights off. She later sent her mother a Snapchat video of armed officers swarming the building.
“It was pretty traumatic,” Marinucci said. “She’s usually pretty tough, but it was scary yesterday.”
Marinucci’s daughter had just finished her MCAS exam when the lockdown began, and was without her phone because of the test. As soon as the lockdown ended, she FaceTimed her mother from the bathroom.
Marinucci had not been worried about her daughter’s physical safety — she first heard about the incident when police already knew everyone was safe. But Marinucci was worried about her daughter emotionally. When she picked her up early, “she was shaking in the car,” Marinucci said.
Marinucci’s daughter was back at school Wednesday — for the second day of the English MCAS exam — and the district said there would be resources available to help students.
“I imagine there are many other kids who are kind of traumatized,” Marinucci said. “It was kind of crazy and scary. You see it on TV from other places. I know it wasn’t real, it was just a threat, but they acted like it was real.”
The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to email@example.com.
Deanna Pan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @DDpan. Christopher Huffaker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @huffakingit.