For a few excruciating moments last week, students, teachers and parents at 10 schools spread throughout Maine thought the unthinkable was happening.

It didn’t take long for police to discover that the reports of an active shooter at those schools were a hoax. But for a while, the terror was all too real: officers rushing to the scene, schools going into lockdown, students and teachers pushing furniture up against the classroom door and sending panicked messages to loved ones.

Busloads of students arrive at Sanford Memorial gym, where parents wait in line to pick them up on Tuesday after a hoax call about an active shooter. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

This is the world we allow our kids to live in, one where the threat of gun violence in schools is so commonplace that all it takes is a phone call to throw an entire community into panic.

It doesn’t have to be this way. But in order for it to change, it’ll require a broad effort, one that reduces the availability of guns while addressing the needs of students who may be prone to violence — as well as the many more who now must spend their days worried about what may come through their classroom door.

The stress the threat of violence puts on students and teachers, as well as parents, is as immense as it is warranted. According to the Educator’s School Safety Network, there have been at least 257 shootings on school campuses this year, passing the record set last year. Since the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, more than 700 people have been shot at schools, and more people have died in mass shootings at schools in the last four years than in the previous 18.

Those are just a fraction of the 45,222 firearm-related deaths in our country that happened in 2020, the last year statistics are available. That’s the same year that firearm-related injuries became the leading cause of death for children and adolescents, passing motor vehicle deaths for the first time.

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Students are reminded of the danger they are in not only when the latest shooting hits the news, but also by the heightened security and increased tension in schools. Popped balloons, a chair being thrown, a metal pipe banging: all these have been mistaken for gunshots by educators on high alert and set off anxiety-inducing lockdowns. Even the drills meant to prepare students for the event of a school shooting can harm mental health.

And, of course, authorities have to respond when an emergency call comes in, no matter how suspicious it is.

Last week, those calls, regarding 10 Maine school systems from York to Aroostook county, sent each community into understandable panic.

“It caused a lot of emotional and mental distress,” a Gardiner Area High School student told the Kennebec Journal. “We’ve done a lot of training in the past, but nothing prepares you for something like this.”

The FBI, along with Maine State Police, are investigating. The calls are similar to other instances around the country that reportedly have been traced to Ethiopia, made using technology that masks their origin.

They may or may not be related to threats that closed other Maine schools last week.

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Tense, anxious and ready for the next shoe to drop. This is not how kids should learn.

There’s no doubt that schools require solid security and response plans. Last week’s hoaxes gave 10 school districts and their communities the chance to test their response. Police and school officials should review the response to see how they did.

To make schools a better, safer place to learn, no stone should be left unturned. Nationally, legislation passed in the wake of the Uvalde shooting gives schools more resources to hire social workers and put in place programming to identify warning signs of violence. Maine schools should take full advantage of this funding.

More than that, we should build communities where kids feel noticed and supported, and where others can see when someone is in trouble.

And, finally, if Congress can’t find the courage to pass laws that make it less likely someone intent on violence can get a firearm, then legislators in Maine should. Time and time again, we find that easy access to guns turns angry, aggrieved people into murderers.

We hope the unthinkable never happens here. In any case, we should do everything in our power to make it less likely that it does.


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