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Hoax 911 call disrupts Cloquet high school, middle school

What turned out to be a false 911 call reporting “an active threat of violence” at Cloquet High School Wednesday morning sent law enforcement racing to the building, where students and staff were unaware of any problems.

“The phone call was a hoax, but it threw both buildings into lockdown,” Cloquet superintendent Michael Cary said.

A news release from the Cloquet police department said the Carlton County Sheriff's dispatch center received a call at 10:37 a.m. from an unknown, unidentified person stating there was an armed suspect with an AK-47 shooting students at the Cloquet High School in Room 108 of the English department. The dispatcher reported the caller to have a “very thick accent.”

Cloquet police and neighboring law enforcement agencies responded and found nothing out of the ordinary and no Room 108. Still, they swept both the high school and the middle school for anything suspicious, and cleared the scene. No one reported hearing anything out of the ordinary inside the school, but officers remained at the schools for the rest of the day.

According to the Cloquet police and other news sources, Cloquet wasn’t the only place to get a fake call Wednesday. Minnesota Public Radio reported that Cloquet, Rochester Lourdes High School and Mankato West High School all were reported in 911 calls.

The city of Mankato posted on Facebook about its call, which came in around 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.

“It's believed the call was a hoax, also known as 'swatting,' which is when someone makes a prank call to law enforcement claiming an emergency and provides a real address for someone to respond,” the Facebook post read. “Several other schools in the region received similar calls providing identical details,” in what is believed to be part of nationwide swatting incidents, “occurring in multiple states, which has been confirmed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Back in Cloquet, Cary said this is the second time — fourth quarter last year and first quarter this year — that the school day has been disrupted by a phone call falsely reporting violence.

Last year, the Esko school district also was part of a wave of calls across the country — which the FBI eventually determined came from somewhere in Africa — reporting a very specific bomb threat.

Cloquet police chief Derek Randall called swatting, whether it’s done as a prank or other reasons, “a serious crime with severe consequences,” stating that the goal is to draw a response from law enforcement and the SWAT team to a specific location.

“When an incident of this nature occurs in our city, it consumes much, if not all, of our resources,” Randall wrote. “We are thankful for the assistance and relationships with the Carlton County Sheriff's Office, Fond du Lac Police Department, our state agencies, our fire and ambulance services, and our regional public safety partners.”

While praising the police response, Cary said he wished there was a way such calls could be identified, especially if they originate from other countries, so they could be recognized as fake upon receipt. Randall said technology has increasingly made these types of calls hard to prevent and enforce. He said that the FBI had informed the CPD that the call was similar to the bomb threats last spring.

The upheaval doesn’t stop with the police search.

Cary noted that social media forces the district to send out notices more quickly than he would like sometimes.

“We want to pre-empt the social media storm so sometimes we have to send imperfect information,” he said of the mass text messages and emails that he can send to parents and staff with a touch of a button. “But social media reports are often REALLY inaccurate, so it kind of forces us.”

Cary said the school day had resumed, but he expected to see some parents come pick up their children and take them out of school for the remainder of the day, compounding the disruption.

“All because someone made a phone call,” he said.

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