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False reports of school shootings reported across Iowa
The calls, which were reported in at least 30 school districts, were deemed by the state public safety department to be a hoax designed to create chaos and fear
DES MOINES — At least 30 Iowa schools received phone calls warning of school shootings Tuesday morning, calls the state public safety department quickly determined were fake.
The calls were described by the state public safety department as “swatting,” which is the criminal act of making a false report to law enforcement agencies with the goal of drawing out a large law enforcement response and create chaos and fear at the location.
There was no evidence of any active threats in the state, Iowa Department of Public Safety Commissioner Stephan Bayens said Tuesday morning during a news conference at the department’s offices in Des Moines.
Coincidentally, the news conference was scheduled before news of the swatting calls was confirmed; Bayens and Gov. Kim Reynolds had scheduled the news conference to unveil the state’s new program for reporting potential threats of school violence.
“It is a phone call that is a hoax by design. The design of it is to create confusion and chaos. It’s to suck up law enforcement resources, to try to draw a large law enforcement presence to the school even though there is no active threat,” Bayens said. “And by all accounts, and for all intents and purposes, it appears thus far that that’s what Iowa’s experiencing today.”
By the time of the 10 a.m. news conference Tuesday, calls had been confirmed in dozens of school districts across the state, including Muscatine, Davenport, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and in Cerro Gordo, Story and Polk counties. And by the end of the news conference, Bayens confirmed more calls had been confirmed in Western Iowa, including Creston.
The first call was confirmed in Clinton County at approximately 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, and subsequent, similar calls were confirmed in a virtual east-to-west path across the state, Bayens said.
Bayens said the calls appeared to be coming in staggered — rather than many at once, had similar messages and the caller’s voice was similar, leading Bayens to believe the calls were all being made by the same person. Baynes said the caller or callers appeared to be using sophisticated technology that makes it difficult for law enforcement to track the call’s origin. He said the technology throws off phone call tracing programs by pinging around to myriad locations, including internationally.
Other states have experienced similar swatting incidents over the past couple of months, including Illinois, Minnesota and Colorado, Bayens said.
Bayens said when faced with sophisticated technology used in these swatting incidents, law enforcement agencies must treat each threat seriously, but also once they have determined there is no threat spread the word as quickly as possible to avoid mass panic.
Bayens said when Tuesday morning’s first call was confirmed in Clinton, law enforcement agencies from five counties plus the Iowa State Patrol responded.
“Anyone and everyone came a-runnin’,” Bayens said.
He said by the time the calls had spread to Central Iowa, the state department was able to convey the message about the widespread hoax calls. He said the department was able to deliver the information to “several thousand” law enforcement officers within a half-hour.
“But we have to take every one seriously. That’s our charge. That’s the demand,” Bayens said.
The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office stated in a news release that deputies responded to a call in Tiffin and thoroughly investigated. They found there was no cause for concern at the school.
“There was no evidence this call was credible, nor did it originate from a caller within Iowa,” the release states.
The Iowa City Police Department issued a news release stating it had been in communication with the Iowa City Community School District about calls it had received, and that they also found the calls were not credible.
Iowa City schools superintendent Matt Degner sent an email to families of students Tuesday explaining the swatting calls and emphasizing that all students were safe.
“The safety of our students and staff remains our top priority. We are working closely with law enforcement to monitor the situation locally and statewide. As always, thank you for your support as we work to ensure a safe learning environment for our students,” Degner said in the email.
Lee Hermiston, the public information officer for the Iowa City Police Department, said City High was referenced in one of the false calls, and it was the only school called within the Iowa City Police jurisdiction. The school district encompasses several communities, so it’s possible there were calls at other schools. The district did not have any additional comments beyond Degner’s email.
In Cedar Rapids, a report was made at Washington High School, according to the Cedar Rapids Police Department. The school resource officer on-site was able to assess the situation and determine there was no real threat.
“We appreciate the cooperation of the Cedar Rapids Community School District in maintaining safety for students and staff,” Mike Battien, the public relations officer for the department, said in an email.
The Gazette was unable to confirm that any school district canceled classes as a result of a call Tuesday. Des Moines schools did not have classes today because it had been previously scheduled as a professional development day, according to a post on the school’s Twitter account.
Bayens said swatting calls have been made in Iowa before, but not at the volume of Tuesday’s calls.
Reynolds said when she heard of the first confirmed call this morning, she feared the worst.
“At that point, we still were unsure of what was possibly taking place,” Reynolds said at the Tuesday morning news conference. “It’s what no governor, it’s what no parents, or anybody — superintendents, teachers — want to hear. And we’re grateful, we’re so thankful that that’s what it was (not a legitimate threat).”
Reynolds and Bayens had originally scheduled the press conference to unveil “Safe and Sound Iowa,” the new state program in which Iowans can anonymously report potential threats of school violence. The program was developed by the state’s recently created School Safety Bureau, which offers to school districts information and best practices for school safety.
Grace King contributed to this article.
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