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13 Utah schools focus of false calls about attacks; DPS, FBI aiding in probe

By Tim Vandenack - | Mar 30, 2023
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Ogden Police Capt. Tim Scott speaks at a press conference on Wednesday, March 29, 2023, called in response to the false report of an active shooter earlier in the day at Ogden High School. From left, Ogden School District Superintendent Luke Rasmussen and Mark Johnson, chief administrative officer for Ogden, listen.
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Ogden High School, photographed Wednesday, March 29, 2023. The school was the target of a false report of an active shooter, which prompted a lockdown and heavy police presence at the school. The facility was searched by law enforcement officials and eventually cleared.

OGDEN -- A semblance of normalcy seems to be returning to Ogden High School following the chaos caused by a false report of an active shooter at the school.

Thirteen Utah schools in all, including Ogden High, were targeted by false reports of violence on Wednesday, according to Hillary Koellner, director of communications for the Utah Department of Public Safety. The anonymous caller in each instance offered up a similar fake storyline, she said -- an active shooter was inside the school and people were injured.

In Ogden, the high school was placed on a lockdown after the call came in and armed police and SWAT officers scoured the facility while students and staff hunkered in classrooms. Officials cleared the building, students went home early and on Thursday, Ogden School District spokesperson Jer Bates reported that students and staff seemed to be rebounding from the tense turn of events.

He and Luke Rasmussen, the district superintendent, visited the school Thursday as part of Tiger Esteem Week activities there "and the educators and students that I observed seemed to be highly engaged and in good spirits," Bates said. "That being said, we will continue to remind students and school employees of the opportunities to receive support."

Trauma teams, officials said Wednesday, would be made available to those still processing Wednesday's events.

Meantime, the probe to figure out who made the calls around Utah is moving ahead. The DPS' Statewide Information and Analysis Center is teaming with the FBI and local law enforcement officials in the impacted locales on the investigation. "It's definitely top priority," Koellner said.

She wouldn't name them, but said 13 schools in all across Utah were target of false calls about active shooters. According to law enforcement and other reports, the list includes Ogden High, Spanish Fork High, Provo High, Box Elder High in Brigham City, West High in Salt Lake City and three schools in Moab -- Grand County High, Margaret Hopkin Middle School and Helen Knight Elementary. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that Washington County School District, which encompasses St. George, was also the target of hoax calls.

The call about Ogden High came in at 9:31 Wednesday morning to Weber Area Dispatch, which handles emergency calls in Weber County. Koellner said the calls about all the schools "trickled in" around the same time.

Besides making similar false reports about an active shooter, Koellner said, all the calls seemed to come from the same person, judging by the voice, from a male caller with a foreign accent.

Furthermore, she said, all the calls came from the same phone number and the same internet protocol address. "They used the internet to be able to make the calls rather than a regular phone line," she said.

Officials have narrowed the location of the IP address to a "bloc of countries" outside the United States, but the IP address could "be a mask," meaning the address could be from somewhere else. "There's still a lot of work to do," she said.

Ogden Police Capt. Tim Scott said at a press conference Wednesday that investigators from the department were working with federal officials as part of the probe, an investigation, he thinks, that is occurring on a national scale.

In a statement, the FBI said it is aware of the false phone calls, termed "swatting" -- making a false emergency call to prod a response from law enforcement. "The FBI is aware of the numerous swatting incidents wherein a report of an active shooter at a school is made. The FBI takes swatting very seriously because it puts innocent people at risk," said the statement.

Hoax calls have also been made in recent days to schools in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, according to media reports in the states. Education Week reported in February that schools in California, Michigan and Vermont had been targeted by false reports of shootings.

The education publication additionally cited investigations by NPR and Wired magazine that traced many swatting calls to TextNow. TextNow, Education Week said, is "an online platform that allows internet users around the world to make anonymous calls using U.S. numbers, providing only an email address to gain access."

National stats aren't kept on swatting incidents, but the FBI estimates there are hundreds of them per year. Many incidents go unreported. Regardless, the FBI urges the public to be vigilant.

"We urge the public to remain vigilant and report any and all suspicious activity and/or individuals to law enforcement immediately," said the FBI statement. Aside from calling local law enforcement, the public can contact the FBI via tips.fbi.gov or by phone at 1-800-CALL-FBI.

Koellner emphasized that the spate of hoax calls won't result in law enforcement officers letting down their guard, dismissing suspect emergency reports. "They are still going to do their due diligence to protect everybody," she said.

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