When Littleton High School ninth grader Osso Siddall heard lockdown alarms begin during his lunch period, he did the safest thing he could think of — He ran.
“The lockdown alert sounded, and then everybody was just screaming and confused,” he said. “And then I heard someone, I think it was like a staff member, said something about somebody was in the building… So I got out of there as fast as I could.”
Three blocks and a couple hundred rapid heartbeats later, he arrived at his home. His mother, Mary Siddall, knew something was wrong right away when her son opened the door, out of breath.
“I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’” she said. “And he’s like, ‘Well there was a lockdown.’ And I was like, ‘Why are you here?’ And he said, ‘Well, because I left. Why would I be in the building if there is a shooter?’”
Littleton High School was one of more than a dozen Colorado schools that were targeted by hoax threat calls, known as “swatting” calls, on Feb. 22. The incident threw parents, students, school staff, law enforcement officials and district officials into immediate response mode as they tried to figure out what was happening and how to communicate during the incident.
Melissa Yongue found out about the lockdown when her ninth-grade daughter texted her from inside the school. Yongue was aware of the swatting calls happening at other schools. Her daughter said she heard no gunfire in the building.
“I would say within probably 10, 20 minutes, I think… my husband and her and I all felt pretty confident that it was just part of the hoax calls coming in because she wasn’t hearing anything,” Yongue said. “So it was kind of a short-lived panic, but it was definitely a panic. I mean, it’s not something that any parent wants to get from a text message from their child in 2023.”
While the lockdown was happening, Yongue said she continuously refreshed the Littleton Police Department Twitter page to see updates on the situation. On the police department’s Tweets, comments from some parents expressed frustration that Littleton Public Schools was not communicating more during the lockdown.
One comment at 2:31 p.m. thanked the department for its updates, saying that the district had “communicated nothing” at that point. Another comment posted the next morning said, “And there was also no communication with the parents until 2 hours and it was over! Not cool.”
The lockdown started at 1:47 p.m., according to the district. The district sent a text message and email to parents about the lockdown at approximately 3:27 p.m., just a few minutes before the school’s regular dismissal time and about 17 minutes before the lockdown lifted. Later in the evening, the district sent messages from Littleton High School Principal Cathy Benton and Superintendent Brian Ewert.
Yongue recognized there could be many reasons the information didn’t come faster from the district, but said it was still frustrating that the information came out as late as it did.
“I understand it’s a sticky situation, but I think lack of information is what causes people to speculate,” she said. “And it takes one student or one person to misinterpret something or mishear something or mistake something and that information spreads like wildfire… I would like to have more information coming from them but like I said, we had the information coming from (the police department) and that is what I think kept a lot of parents as calm as you can be in a situation like that.”
Police spokesperson Sheera Poelman said her goal with police communications is to get information out quickly when it relates to public safety. The district, she said, is a different entity with different communication processes.
“Both the school system and the police department realized that we need to get our communication teams together,” she said. “So that way, if something like this happens in the future, we’re ready.”
Littleton Public Schools spokesperson Diane Leiker said the district was working to get information out as fast as they could while also juggling many other concerns during the incident, especially because it happened near dismissal time. They were coordinating with law enforcement, figuring out delayed dismissals, adjusting bus plans and also managing situations at the district’s three other schools that were on secure perimeter at the same time as the lockdown, she said.
“It’s important to note that (the school district’s) first priority anytime that there’s an incident is to ensure the safety of our students and staff,” she said. “We always want to communicate with our parents and our staff and our community as quickly as possible. We’re not always in a position to do that, though, because the information isn’t available to us or it’s changing so rapidly.”
She said the district learned from the experience and has made changes for the future.
“We wish that we could have communicated in a much more timely manner,” she said. “Every incident we have, we learn, and we certainly learned from that one. And so it is our goal and our mission to do better.”
Leiker said the district implemented an enhanced communication strategy on March 1 when more swatting incidents happened in Boulder, Brighton and Aspen. Although Littleton schools were not targeted, the district sent out texts and emails and posted on their website to keep families informed.
“I appreciated them acknowledging the situation quickly,” Yongue said about the March 1 communications. “It was very soon after news reports of the other calls being made again that we received the message from (the district).”
Other parents said they were pleased by how the district handled communications during the lockdown and did not see a need for change.
“It’s difficult because as a parent, I really would like to know what’s going on right away, right?” Siddall said. “But I have learned with all the issues we have been having at all different schools that it takes a lot of time to put the communication out… You have to trust our principal, you have to trust our resource officer and the police — even when, yes, of course, we want to know what’s going on.”
Impact on students
When asked if he was afraid when the lockdown began, Osso said he was more confused than anything.
“For the most part, I was just confused about like, what’s happening?” he said. “I’ve lived my whole life in Littleton, and nothing really happens that’s too big. So I was just confused about what could happen.”
Laura Mehew, a Littleton High School mother, said she is concerned about the impact of swatting on students, especially considering how many are being victimized by these incidents.
“These kids have been exposed to so much, they’re almost becoming desensitized to it a little bit, which is, in my opinion, a defense mechanism,” she said. “It’s in the hundreds, I would say the thousands of students who are being impacted by (swatting)… It causes trauma.”
Littleton High School alone has approximately 1,300 students, so thousands of Colorado students have been victims of swatting in recent weeks.
Mehew is particularly concerned because her family was involved in an active shooter situation a few years ago. The suspect in that situation ended up being unarmed, making her familiar with the trauma that threat situations can cause, even if they do not end up causing physical harm.
Yongue said swatting is “frustrating” and “disgusting.”
“(Kids) have this true threat that they deal with, and we as parents deal with every day that we send our kids to school,” she said. “To have somebody exploit that is — I don’t understand how you get to a state of mind where you think, ‘This is what I’m going to do today.’ And it’s even more frustrating to know that they will most likely never be caught.”
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, those who post or send false threats can receive up to five years in federal prison, or they can face state or local charges. In Colorado, false reporting of an emergency is a class 1 misdemeanor, but can be raised to a felony if injury occurs.
The Littleton Police Department said they are working with local partners and the FBI as investigations into the incident move forward.
Mehew said she is grateful for those who work to keep students safe when situations like this occur.
“Our school people are put on the frontlines of so many issues that kids are facing right now,” she said. “Education and trying to educate them is just one part of it. They’re having to help these kids through so much more. So I’m very appreciative of the school and of the Littleton Police Department.”