“You Don’t Mess With Sanford”: Active Shooter Hoax Response Praised

On Tuesday, November 15, 2022, at 8:20 am, a call came in to the Sanford Regional Communications Center from someone claiming to be a teacher, reporting an active shooting at Sanford High School with five injured students. That call was eventually determined to be a hoax, but not until after students were evacuated to Veterans Memorial Gym, and first responders had searched the building. Rumors spreading on social media fueled anxiety for the students and their families.

Sanford Police and Fire Departments rushed to the scene, with the initial response just three minutes after the call was received. Members of the Southern Maine Special Response Team, a regional tactical unit that responds to emergency situations, happened to be training at the SPD at the time. Officers entered the building without hesitation and began the search.

At the City Council meeting that evening, Sanford Police Chief Craig Andersen praised the actions of all involved: “You have a great team…every team member of every agency that responded, of every municipal organization that works for you and this community, was outstanding.” He also praised the School Department and the SHS administrators who, unarmed and without knowing that the threat was false, escorted officers through the building, unlocking doors and sharing their knowledge of the facility. He said although police began to suspect shortly after arriving at the school that the call was a hoax, they couldn’t be sure until a thorough search was done. That it might have been a ploy to draw students out of the school into the open was also taken into consideration. All students were evacuated from the building by 10:30 am, but it was just before noon when police finally determined that the school was safe.

Chief Andersen also recognized the students and their families, as well as school staff, for the stress they endured during the event. “We really appreciate that they kept it together,” he said. He singled out School Resource Officer Joe Jourdain for his recent training of school staff in the ALICE protocol, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. “If he hadn’t put the effort and time into it, it may not have gone so well.”

Superintendent of Schools Matt Nelson called it a “terrible, terrible, scary incident” but said he was “incredibly proud to work in this community and in this School Department.” He thanked the families and said that support for them and the students would be available to deal with the trauma, adding, “we have some more difficult days ahead.” He said SHS and SRTC would not hold classes on Wednesday, November 16, but would be open for students to retrieve their belongings or speak to a counselor. Mr. Nelson also praised the work of the first responders who put their lives on the line with no hesitation.

Fire Chief Steve Benotti spoke about the medical response to the incident. He said three air ambulances and multiple hospitals were on standby, and mutual aid partners came in with their expertise. He said the training the Fire Department has done with the Police Department over the past year and a half was put to use in “the most lifelike training incident you could imagine.” He added that what was not anticipated was the adrenaline letdown, anxiety and emotional stress of students at the Memorial Gym, and said it would take some time for them to fully recover.

Deputy Police Chief Eric Small said the leadership in the Police Department, and in the City itself, is built on relationships and partnerships. In addition to the SRT, every working member of the Police Department responded, as well as the State Police and first responders from other area departments including the York County Sheriff’s Department, North Berwick, South Berwick, Eliot, Wells, Ogunquit, Saco, Kennebunk and multiple federal agencies.

Members of the City Council also praised the response to the incident. Councilor Becky Brink remarked on the patience of parents waiting in long lines to pick up their children at Memorial Gym, and on the students’ good behavior. “They had to sit there for hours and hours and yet there were no problems,” she said. She thanked everyone who came to the Gym after the fact to help and voiced her pride in the City’s Fire, Police and School Departments. “When the police all zoomed into that building, I wish we could show that on television so people would know, you don’t mess with Sanford. Sanford is a community that sticks together and no matter what, we all step forward when we are called on to do something for our City.”

Councilor Ayn Hanselmann called the response “impressive, amazing and inspiring.” She said the fear, worry and powerlessness that parents felt made the first hour feel like 24 hours, and said the City should look at its emergency planning to see how communications and onsite management of the Memorial Gym during an emergency can be improved.

Councilor Michael Termath echoed her praise and pride: “Our community stepped up today big time…Sanford is the example of how a community comes together.” He thanked the first responders and called them heroes.

Mayor Anne-Marie Mastraccio said one of the wonderful things about the day was that nothing horrible happened, and that we can learn from this event how to do better. Councilor Jonathan Martell said he was also thankful that it was just a hoax and thanked the Police, Fire and School Departments for all the proactive work that has been done to prepare for such an emergency.

City Manager Steve Buck got emotional when discussing the day’s events. He especially thanked the Police Department. “When the call came…the entire Department emptied out and took that school by storm…they put their lives on the line today,” he said.

The active shooter call in Sanford was the first of ten in Maine that morning. Michael Sauschuck, Maine’s Public Safety Commissioner, said all ten calls were made from the same phone number. The other affected schools were in Portland, Brunswick, Ellsworth, Houlton, Winslow, Wiscasset, Gardiner, Fort Fairfield and Rockland. The FBI is in charge of the investigation.

The hoax call was made using something called VoIP, which stands for Voice Over Internet Protocol, a system for making phone calls over the internet which doesn’t display the caller’s phone number. Although the City of Sanford’s initial press release described the VoIP call as untraceable, many VoIPs can be traced using investigative tools to which the FBI has access.

For more on the incident and the response to it, read these media stories: