A terrifying lie

Man with heavy accent who called police department to report an active shooter sends students running from school in ‘absolutely terrifying and traumatizing’ incident at Port High

WITH HIS GUN DRAWN, Port Washington police officer Jason Bergin, who serves as the school resource officer, guarded students as they were escorted out of Port High last week after authorities received a bogus report of an active shooter at the school. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

The terrifying lie that sent Port Washington High School students running from their classrooms for what they presumed were their lives and struck fear in the hearts of their teachers and parents last week was told by a man who called the police department and, on a bad connection and with a heavy accent, reported that there was an active shooter in the school, authorities said this week.

The call was made just after 9 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, not on a 911 emergency line that would have gone directly to the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Office dispatch center but to the Port Washington Police Department’s records department, where the clerk who answered it struggled to decipher what the man was saying.

“She was trying to understand what the man was saying, and when she determined that he was talking about an active school shooter she asked him to remain on the line while she transferred him to the county,” Chief Kevin Hingiss said. “I listened to the call, and how she was able to understand it is amazing.”

The call was transferred to the Sheriff’s Office at 9:08 a.m., Undersheriff Christy Knowles said.

“The report was of an active school shooting happening now,” Knowles, who was the commander on scene at Port High, said.

Port Washington High School was one of at least 14 schools in the state that received similar threats on the same day. Knowles noted that while authorities and school officials in some other areas suspected the reports were hoaxes and put schools on some form of lockdown rather than evacuate them, Port Washington and Ozaukee County authorities didn’t know about the other threats — perhaps because the Port High threat was one of the first.

“We weren’t made aware of the other incidents around the state,” Knowles said. “We thought it was a legitimate threat.

“We responded based on the information we had, and I truly believe our response was appropriate. I’m really proud to say we did fine. Could we learn from this? Sure, that’s why we debrief after incidents like this. But at the end of the day, no one was hurt, not even from a fall while running away. Everyone is safe.”

As officers from every law enforcement agency in the county raced to Port Washington, the first officers to reach the high school were greeted by waves of students running out of the building.

“As I was running up to the school, the kids were running out with absolute looks of fear on their faces, and rightfully so,” Hingiss said.

One student said, “It was definitely scary.”

Another said, “Everyone thought it was real. It felt very real.”

Schools have active shooter drills regularly, much like fire and tornado drills, and students and staff members are trained in a variety of responses, including running, hiding and even fighting.

Most of the school’s 830 students ran out of the building to designated places such as the nearby Niederkorn Library and First Congregational Church, where officers stood guard. Others went home or congregated elsewhere in the city.

Other students and staff members, including a number of them in the special education wing, barricaded themselves in classrooms.

Officers, many of them armed with rifles and wearing heavy body armor, took up positions around the school while others methodically searched the hallways and classrooms.

Eventually, students still in the school were led out by officers.

As the incident unfolded, officers learned of similar threats at schools throughout the state and, absent any indication of a shooter at Port High, were beginning to realize that what they were dealing with was likely a so-called swatting, a criminal harassment tactic that entails triggering a police response by making a false threat that has been used to disrupt schools throughout the country.

“As we were working through this, we started to have questions and concerns about why we weren’t receiving any more calls,” Hingiss said.

Knowles said, “Once we got in the building, it started becoming clear that this likely wasn’t a credible threat.”

Parents were instructed not to come to the school but rather go to the library to find their children. Teachers who lined the perimeter of the school grounds talked to, and in some cases consoled, parents who came to the school desperately looking for their children.

“For the most part, parents were very good and let us do our jobs,” Hingiss said.

The mother of one student was found by officers near the back of the school trying to get in the building. The woman, who was armed with a handgun but did not brandish it, was detained until officers could confirm she was a parent of a student, Hingiss said. Authorities continue to investigate the incident.

Around noon, three hours after officers descended on the school and after the building had been searched twice — some areas three times — officers cleared the scene, Knowles said.

“We train for this as a county, and I was very impressed with how it came together,” she said.

Hingiss said, “The students did a great job. In fact our whole community, with the library and First Congregational Church taking in students, did a great job.”

Port High Principal Rachel Biertzer said students and staff members did exactly what they were supposed to do.

“We’re really proud of how they followed our training,” she said. “The kids and our staff did what they were asked to do, and they did it well.”

But teacher Meg Jacoby said that while no one was harmed, students suffered psychological scars from a very real event.

“People say, ‘It was just a hoax. Get over it,’ but this was very real,” she said. “There were kids coughing and throwing up because they ran so hard. There were teachers crying.

“This was absolutely terrifying and traumatizing on so many levels.”

Authorities are confident the man who made the threat does not live in the area and said the call may have originated from outside the country.

“I know people want this person held accountable, but that’s difficult when he’s not local, let alone maybe not in this country,” Knowles said.

Hingiss said he has briefed the FBI, which is investigating active shooter hoaxes throughout the country, on the Port High incident.

“Hopefully they can eventually find these people, prosecute them and get them to stop this,” he said.


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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