The first full day of class at Volunteer High School in rural Tennessee was marred by a terrifying warning.
"The caller claimed he had a gun, he was on campus, he was heading toward the gym, he was in one of the main restrooms and he was going to open fire," Hawkins County Schools director Matt Hixson told the Free Press in an interview Thursday.
The prank call to the school Aug. 10 — allegedly dialed from Fisher River Cree Nation by a Manitoba man — led to a significant local police response and an investigation that spanned two American states and one Canadian province.
"Anytime you’re confronted with a realistic threat, a very real threat like what we experienced that day, your first concern is for staff and student safety and getting them accounted for and safe," Hixson said.
On Wednesday, the RCMP said they were acting to assist the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Department of Homeland Security when Manitoba officers executed a search warrant Aug. 30 at a Fisher River home. Four hoax threats were placed in the two states in August, with the calls traced to the province, police said.
An 18-year-old man was arrested and a number of electronic items were seized, RCMP said, but would not elaborate on any potential motive. The accused's name has not been released. He has been released and is to appear in court Dec. 7 at Peguis First Nation.
Officials described the incidents — two in Tennessee and two in North Carolina — as "swatting," a name given to false reports that describe a life-threatening situation meant to provoke an armed police response.
Students and staff at the Tennessee school were just trickling in at around 8 a.m. when "everything broke loose."
"That call came in and simultaneously a female student had a seizure in our parking lot — she was witnessed by several falling and hitting her head and bleeding in the parking lot — so the arriving officer sees a student going down, bleeding in the parking lot, and the call was being made," Hixson said.
"We had responders from other counties, state agencies and federal agencies there within a matter of minutes... I think it was estimated at just under 100 law enforcement officers."
The county school went into full-blown lockdown, while students and staff not already inside were directed away from the building, some off the campus. Police blocked roads and set up two incident command stations.
"Prior to that... (police) started going from room to room with SWAT personnel trying to locate the perpetrator — trying to identify any injured, or worse, staff or students," Hixson said.
Just over a week later in neighbouring North Carolina, a similar threat was called in to Watauga High School at the end of the school day Aug. 18.
A law enforcement bulletin had circulated from Tennessee about the Hawkins County hoax, Watauga County Schools superintendent Scott Elliott told the Free Press, and dispatchers recognized the call was similar.
"Nonetheless and appropriately, they dispatched emergency response and law enforcement... and we initiated our emergency response procedures," he said.
Police determined it was a hoax within about 40 minutes, but it was still disruptive to the rural school.
"It's very alarming... even though, fortunately, often these kinds of events turn out to be false threats, we can never approach them that way," Elliott said.
Swatting is a common prank in the online gaming world, Montreal-based cybersecurity expert Steve Waterhouse said. The goal in some cases is to see an adversary arrested or questioned by police on livestream.
It can have deadly consequences.
On Dec. 28, 2017, a Los Angeles man made a hoax emergency call that led to the fatal police shooting of a Kansas man. He was convicted and sentenced to 20 years after pleading guilty in 2019. He was also charged with public mischief, fraud and mischief after making a similar call in Calgary on Dec. 22 that year.
"Lives are at risk every time you have a SWAT team being sent to an address," Waterhouse told the Free Press.
"(The callers) create such an environment of stress and life-threatening scenarios that the police cannot take any chance and say, ‘Well this must be another swatting attack and we’ll just take it easy’ — no, they jump on the gun and go rock and roll on the operation. They assume the worst."
However, arrests aren't as common as the calls themselves.
"If (the perpetrators) do the job correctly… they will cover their tracks properly and complexify enough the work of finding out who’s behind the mischief, and most often, they’re not found," Waterhouse said.
Erik Pindera is a multimedia producer at the Winnipeg Free Press.