School shooting hoax brings fear, quick response
By Tony Kukulich
A massive law enforcement response converged on Beaufort High School Wednesday morning after a call to the Beaufort Police Department (BPD) reported an active shooter on the school’s campus.
While the call was eventually determined to be a hoax, officials praised the law enforcement response to the incident, noting that the first officers entered the school within minutes of the call. Their reaction contrasts law enforcement agencies in Uvalde, Texas, who were widely criticized for waiting more than an hour before they engaged a school shooter at Robb Elementary School who killed 19 students and two teachers in May.
“Our law enforcement, our fire department, our EMS did exactly what they always train to do,” said City of Beaufort Mayor Stephen Murray during a Wednesday afternoon press conference. “We’ve seen incidents around the country where maybe there wasn’t a rapid response. That was not the case in Beaufort this morning.”
Beaufort High was not the sole target of a school-shooting hoax Wednesday morning. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) issued a statement saying that it was investigating a number of similar threats made to schools across the state. Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said 22 schools had received calls reporting fictitious attacks.
In the wake of the statewide incident, Gov. Henry McMaster directed SLED to use the opportunity to study how agencies across the state responded to the perceived threat in order to improve emergency response tactics.
“I ask the State Law Enforcement Division to work collaboratively with local officials to review the response to the October 5, 2022, active-shooter hoax at our public schools and provide best practices to all the state’s public school districts and law enforcement agencies,” wrote McMaster in a letter to SLED Chief Mark Keel dated Oct. 5. “These events require extensive training and preparedness, and I am confident this review will further enhance law enforcement’s ability to combat such criminal attacks.”
City of Beaufort Police Chief Dale McDorman said the call pertaining to Beaufort High School was received at 9:27 a.m. on his agency’s non-emergency number. The caller was transferred to the Sheriff’s Office, and officers were dispatched to the school.
“We immediately had officers responding,” McDorman said. “We notified the Sheriff’s Office. I will tell you that within three minutes, we had officers in that school.”
A school resource officer from the BPD was on school campus at the time the call was made. McDorman said the officer was contacted and reported no obvious disturbance but immediately initiated the security lockdown.
Junior Leyah Murphy was in class when the lockdown was initiated and said students in her classroom “huddled in a corner” waiting for something to happen. She noted the frustration that she and other students felt as no information was shared with them during the incident.
“Then we were told to hold our hands up, and they secured the classroom,” Murphy said as she wiped tears from her eyes. “After about an hour and half they let us out and put us on school buses and brought us here. It was all pretty scary.”
Hundreds of parents gathered outside the school anxious for information about the incident. Once the campus was secured by law enforcement, students were bused from the school to the football stadium where the reunification with their parents got underway. Parents were required to complete a form naming their student and provide photo identification before their child was allowed to leave the school. The process was slow. Some parents expressed frustration with the process, but most parents waited their turn patiently.
“I think the school handled it as best as they knew how, in a cool and cool and collected manner,” said Melissa Bliley as she waited for her freshman son. “My son texted me as soon as they went on lockdown, so I knew right away what was going on. Thankfully, his teacher let them have their phones out to be able to communicate with parents or loved ones.”
BCSD Superintendent Frank Rodriguez thanked law enforcement and other first-responder agencies for the overwhelming response to the perceived threat at the school, and praised the actions of the school’s staff and students.
“Our students responded incredibly well, as well,” Rodriguez said. “They listened. They heard their teachers, and they did the kinds of things that they’re asked to do in order to remain safe during situations like this.”
The FBI, ATF, Port Royal Police Department, South Carolina Highway Patrol, and a U.S. military police K9 unit were part of the response. McDorman noted that about 80 officers from the various agencies responded to the scene and as many as 40 officers were in the conducting searches and clearing classrooms.
He added, “I literally saw officers running toward the front door before their cars had stopped.”
The investigation into the incident will be headed by the FBI with cooperation from the Sheriff’s Office and the Beaufort Police Department. Tanner advised reporters that information related to the incident like tapes of 9-1-1 calls will not immediately be made public.
“We’re not releasing any of that,” Tanner said. “All of it will be turned over to the FBI.”
While the report of the attack was fake, it was just the start of a string of incidents related to school security to impact Beaufort County School District Schools over the following days.
Thursday morning, Beaufort High School was locked down for a second time by the report of a student with a firearm on campus.
“We received word that a student had brought a gun to school this morning,” McDorman said in an email to The Island News. “The student had been named in the call, and officers located the student off campus and he was detained while the investigation was carried out. The school did go on lockdown because the whereabouts of the student was not immediately known. No weapons were located on the student or in the school, and the student was not charged.”
A similar threat was reported at Battery Creek High School that same morning. The Sheriff’s Office investigated the student named in the report and found no weapon, but did find evidence that a 14-year-old student brought a gun to school the prior day. The student was detained at the Department of Juvenile Justice and is being petitioned to Family Court for possession of a firearm on school property.
A threat made after dismissal Thursday afternoon led to the lockdown of Whale Branch Middle School. After an hour, the Sheriff’s Office reported that the threat was not deemed credible and the lockdown was lifted. The school was searched as a precautionary measure.
The Sheriff’s Office revealed that the call making the threat originated from a person outside of the local area. It is not known if this incident is related to the false report made regarding Beaufort High School the prior day.
Finally, a student at Whale Branch Early College High School was detained Friday night after he dropped a handgun he was carrying while at the school’s football stadium. Deputies recovered the weapon while the student fled the scene. School officials were able to identify the 16-year-old student. A short while later, he was detained and transported to the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice. He is charged with carrying a weapon on school property.
Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at email@example.com.