On one day late last year, 10 Maine schools shut down in a panic. Teachers and students locked down buildings in fear while police officers rushed to each one expecting to find an ongoing crime scene.

The calls warning of a school shooter, it turned out, were all a hoax. But to everyone involved the incidents were all too real.

That gives communities an opportunity to learn from the response — if only state officials would let them.

Parents wait outside Sanford Memorial Gym on Nov. 15 to pick up students. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Even though they are clearly public records containing information in the public’s interest to know, the Maine Department of Public Safety is refusing to release transcripts of the calls made to police on Nov. 15.

The department, through its attorney, told the Kennebec Journal only that releasing transcripts of the calls could jeopardize the ongoing investigation. The attorney, Paul Cavanaugh, refused to release even redacted copies and would not explain why.

Cavanaugh told the KJ that the refusal was based on written orders of the Maine Attorney General’s Office and the FBI, which is now leading the investigation. He also refused to release the letter from either agency, either in full or redacted to protect sensitive information.


There are also questions about the department’s faithfulness to the state’s freedom of information laws. At one point in discussions with the KJ, before placing the blame on the AG and FBI, Cavanaugh says he would be within his rights to deny the request on a technicality but instead he wanted to be “cordial.”

The department is wrong. The call transcripts are public records, and public records are public — regardless of whether the department thinks they should be or how any individual feels on a certain day.

In 2013, a unanimous Maine Supreme Judicial Court decision ruled that the state could not withhold transcripts without articulating the specific problems that releasing the information could cause, even in murder cases. No such articulation or explanation has been forthcoming in the hoax case; no such problems have been described.

The newspaper’s attorney, Sig Schutz, called the department’s argument “an extremely aggressive pro-secrecy position, which is very likely unlawful.”

It’s unlawful for a reason. Without access to the 911 calls, made both to law enforcement dispatch centers and directly to administrative lines at police stations, no one outside police would be able to analyze the response and judge its effectiveness.

Without them, we can’t understand what the callers said to cause such a response or how these hoax calls might differ from the real thing. We don’t have a full picture of the panic and stress that is caused by even fake calls for help, nor can we look critically at how law enforcement acted in the midst of a difficult and confusing situation spread across nearly the entire state.


Such analysis was important following the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, last year.

Similarly, as a result of the incidents of Nov. 15 in Maine, it was revealed that Aroostook County doesn’t have an adequate police tactical response in the case of a mass shooting, something that can now be fixed.

Police departments will no doubt continue to use lessons from the school shooting hoaxes to sharpen their response.

But they are not the only ones involved. To keep schools safe, police need support from their communities, as well as adequate oversight.

If our police response to shootings is missing something, let’s find out now. Let’s not wait until the 911 calls are real.


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