Ash White picked up her son, Tristian White, from Central Catholic High School early on Wednesday, as did many parents in response to reports of active shooters at two Oakland schools that turned out to be false — but terrifying.

“When I got the call, the teacher I was talking to was hysterically crying,” Ash said. “I came all the way from Schenley Park where I live. I kicked my neighbor’s door in and just took their car key cause I don’t have my own car.” 

Tristian, a 9th grader, said that he and classmates thought there was an active shooter in the school, so they barricaded their classroom using desks and chairs. 

He said that they only removed the barricades once people outside of the classroom assured them that there was no active shooter. 

Ash said the response time of law enforcement “was great” and that the school did a good job of communicating the situation with her and other parents. 

Allegheny County officials announced late in the morning that reports of active shooter events in area schools were false. But by that time anxiety spurred by the hoaxes and by the nation’s relentless violence had interrupted the normal comings and goings of hundreds, if not thousands, of people and left nerves jangled.

Dozens of Pennsylvania schools were subject to hoax calls reporting active shooters.

The “swatting” calls, meant to evoke large police presence, also occurred in Erie and Meadville high schools to our north, several schools in eastern Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley as well as at least four high schools in central Pennsylvania.

Locally, the county’s 911 dispatch center had received two such calls related to Oakland Catholic High School and Central Catholic, according to a press release. 

No shooter was found, nor injuries reported, at any school.

Students at the two schools began returning to their homerooms at around 11:40 a.m. after police declared the schools to be safe.

Acting Police Chief Tom Stangrecki said at a news conference that the bureau has already begun investigating the source of the 911 calls that falsely reported a shooter. He said they will investigate alongside the Pennsylvania State Police and the FBI. 

In the aftermath of 911 calls warning of active shooter activity at Central Catholic High School and Oakland Catholic High School, which turned out to be a hoax, anxious people comforted one another. (Photo by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Stangrecki said the police learned “within a minute” of the fraudulent 911 call that there was in fact no shooter, but law enforcement responded to clear the buildings as if there was a shooter.

Police were to remain in place at Central Catholic and Oakland Catholic until the end of the day.

Coming just days after a school shooting in Nashville, in which three adults and three children were killed, the hoax prompted a vigorous and emotional response.

Police and parents gathered near St. Paul’s Cathedral, at Craig Street and Fifth Avenue, in Oakland on March 29, 2023, after false alarms of active shooter events at Oakland Catholic High School and Central Catholic High School. (Photos by Quinn Glabicki/PublicSource)

Malek Harrel, 17, a senior at Central Catholic, was changing classes when he saw police entering the school. He told his teacher, and soon after a call came over the loudspeaker that the school was going into lockdown. 

“At first I thought it was a drill,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I stay strong for my peers.” 

Malek was ushered down the school’s quad steps where his dad, Michael, was waiting for him in the parking lot. 

“I’m comforted by my faith,” said the father. He said he was impressed by the way the combination of police forces handled the situation, adding that there was room for improvement in terms of the way that the event was communicated to parents. He said heard about it from a text from his son.

Grady Papa, a 10th grade student at Central Catholic, said he was on his way to engineering, in the STEM building, when he ran into a police officer.

“And a cop comes running up the stairs with a rifle. And he points it at me and says ‘get in the building now!’” said Grady. “I booked it into the building, ran into the classroom and told my teacher: ‘Lock the door! Lock the door!’”

Sam Brackeney, a fellow 10th grader, said he’d heard talk of multiple fatalities and “didn’t know what to believe. … So we were trying to sort through all this false information.”

Helen Liguori, left, of Wexford, is comforted by her husband, Michael, as they stood with other Central Catholic High School families along Fifth Avenue after false alarms of active shooter events at the school and at nearby Oakland Catholic High School shut down the schools on Wednesday, March 29, 2023, in Oakland. “I thought about him being shot. I thought about his curly hair,” said Ms. Liguori of her son. following the morning’s chaotic moments. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Helen Liguori of Wexford stood at the corner of Neville Street and Fifth Avenue embracing her husband, Michael. Her son, the youngest of five, a junior at Central Catholic, texted her that morning.

“He texted us that he was under a table in the cafeteria and that they were in lockdown and they heard police but not gunshots,” she said. She jumped in her car, fielding calls from family members and praying.
“I felt like I couldn’t breathe,” she said. ”I was thinking about how we said goodbye this morning. I was angry with him.

“I thought about him being shot. I thought about his curly hair,” she continued. “I’m angry, this is not okay.”

Prior to the announcement that the calls were a hoax, institutions in proximity to the threats were on edge. The University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus went on lockdown for around half an hour, as did Carnegie Mellon University. Pittsburgh Public Schools later put all of its facilities on modified lockdown for the day, meaning that only existing meetings and appointments would be honored.

Francesca Mellott, a freshman chemistry major at Pitt, said school shootings have become her worst fear since February’s mass shooting at Michigan State University. She was on the third floor of the Cathedral of Learning when she received a text message alert from the university stating that all buildings were locked down.

While the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police leadership knew very quickly that there was no active shooter at two Oakland high schools, the police response was vigorous and students left both schools. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Sitting outside the William Pitt Union a half an hour after Pitt announced that the Oakland campus was safe to reopen, Mellott said she was “still not mentally OK after all of it.” 

“I go to class every day – especially in a building like Cathy, where it’s so heavily populated – and I am afraid that this is going to happen, and I have to figure out where I have to run to, who I have to call, where I have to go, how I can stay alive,” she said. “This just didn’t help.”

Mellott said she still had classes to attend today, which she found difficult. “I just have to somehow continue through today,” she said.

Liz Conroy, a sophomore who transferred to Pitt this year, was feeling “unsettled, to say the least.” She lives near Central Catholic, and her friends have attended school there. 

Coordinated swatting of schools also has some precedent in Ohio and elsewhere. NPR last year reported that 182 schools in 28 states received false calls about threats between Sept. 13 and Oct. 21 alone.

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