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New bill would increase penalties for those who trigger 'swatting' events at Maine schools

The State House in Augusta at dusk on November 9, 2022.
Esta Pratt-Kielley
/
Maine Public
The State House in Augusta at dusk on November 9, 2022.

Several Maine students, teachers and others who experienced a series of recent false active shooter threats at their schools last fall are urging state lawmakers to support a new bill that would increase the penalties for those who make such reports.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Anne Carney, D-Cape Elizabeth, would elevate the penalty for those who make a false report that triggers a lockdown, evacuation or shutdown at a school or public place where emergency personnel are called to the scene. False public reports are currently a Class D crime under Maine law. Carney's bill would make them a Class C felonies, which are punishable by up to five years in prison.

"It really is intended to address a situation where there is an effort to make public safety responders believe that an emergency has happened," Carney told state lawmakers at a public hearing Monday.

These so-called "swatting" events created a lasting fear and trauma among those who experienced them, Carney and several others said Monday.

"This was not a hoax to those of us that were in that building that day," said Katie Schindler, a teacher at Sanford High School and Regional Technical Center. "We thought there was an active shooter in that building, and the fear we felt was very real. When I walk in a room, I scan the room to see where to hide and how I would protect my students."

Sanford was the first of 10 schools that received a fake active shooter report on Nov. 15, 2022. The report triggered a massive police response, bringing officers from nearly a dozen other Maine towns and other nearby law enforcement agencies.

Dr. Julia Oppenheimer, a pediatric resident at Maine Medical Center, recalled how she and her colleagues at the hospital were notified of the events in Sanford and began preparing for the worst.

"I have never seen so many patients being moved out of the emergency department at once," said Oppenheimer, who read the recollections of one of her colleagues. "It was a mass exodus. By the time we were returned to the pediatrics floor, the eerie quiet had affected our usual boisterous and colorful floor. [There was] an energized hum of fear and anticipation, of wondering whether we would have to provide additional care to patients in the ED, of where we would put these new patients when we already had patients in makeshift rooms at the height of the respiratory virus surge, and of what we would witness."

Carney said the proposal is also intended to modernize Maine's false public alarm and report law, which hasn't been updated in nearly 50 years. The legislation would broaden the types of law enforcement and emergency agencies that might receive a false threat to include emergency communications centers and 911 services that more commonly receive dispatches today, she said.

The bill has support from the Maine State Police and Department of Public Safety, as well as the Maine Prosecutors Association, which worked with Carney to write and amend the proposed legislation. The ACLU of Maine testified against it, arguing that the current penalties for those who make false public alarms are sufficient.