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Shooter hoaxes put mental strain on communities

ROCK SPRINGS – A typical morning in class was interrupted by local law enforcement agencies searching for a possible shooter on Monday, April 3, at Rock Springs High School.

Eventually, the Rock Springs Police Department and Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office confirmed there was no threat to public safety.

Multiple schools in Wyoming, as well as in other states, have been dealing with this ongoing trend.

The senseless prank began months ago, according to the Associated Press. Reports of shooters have been harassing schools and colleges, raising concerns among law enforcement and local delegates.

Rock Springs resident Amber Abram said it was “really terrifying.”

Even after the authorities found no actual threat at RSHS, Abram’s daughter begged her for permission to leave the school.

“I had to put myself in her position and do what was best for her mental health, so I allowed her to come home as school resumed,” said Abram. “She’s had perfect attendance since junior high and I didn’t want this to affect that with it being a hoax, but after talking to her and hearing her distraught, the perfect attendance award was no longer important.”

Rock Springs resident Vanessa Johnson is a provisional professional counselor at WEvolve Counseling in Rock Springs. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with an emphasis on child and adolescent development.

According to Johnson, shooter hoaxes can profoundly and adversely impact the mental health of educators, students, parents and anyone else in the community.

“These events leave people feeling as though the experience was real for a moment in time as no one knew what was really happening,” she said. “Experiencing an event like this makes people feel uneasy, threatened, anxious, angry, sad and a whole other host of emotions when they think an actual crisis is happening.”

Johnson said, “And then, after finding out it is a hoax, another slew of emotions can surface; these events can be very traumatic.”

Johnson pointed out that it is very important for families to keep the lines of communication open with their students who are affected by these hoaxes.

“Just because there was not a true threat does not make their reaction to the experience any less valid and feeling elevated levels of anxiety and stress could still impact them for the following days or weeks,” she said. “If students are not wanting to talk with their parents, parents should look for any changes in their children’s sleeping and/or eating habits or any changes in their general demeanor.

“If any of these signs are present, continue to communicate with your child or reach out to a mental health professional if you are concerned.”

With regard to regaining confidence, Johnson believes that parents, teachers and school staff should keep reassuring students that school is a safe place for them to be and remind them of how quickly the school staff and first responders arrived to keep them safe.

“Having conversations with students about the actual probability of an event like this happening in our area may put their minds at ease,” Johnson said. “We live in a great community with people who look out for one another and this provides a sense of safety that not all towns or cities can claim.”

“Hoaxes can be very traumatic,” she added. “The impacts of that trauma don’t just go away when the incident is determined to be a hoax. The mental health impacts can remain with individuals for some time.”

She went on to say that an event like the one the students of Sweetwater County School District No. 1 experienced on Monday can create panic, fear and anxiety.

“They need time to process what happened at that moment. It is important to normalize and validate those feelings.”

Johnson said the shooter hoax is dangerous and puts innocent people at risk of being harmed.

“Whoever is making these calls may be doing it for entertainment, to cause chaos or to purposefully instill fear in communities across the country.”

Johnson’s son is a senior at RSHS.

“When I first heard of this report, I felt a lot of anxiety and just wanted to make sure my son was safe,” she shared. “The panic and fear I felt were echoed by parents and other individuals all across our community.”

Johnson expressed her gratitude for the SCSD1 staff, law enforcement and other first responders who “stepped up to keep our children safe.”

She suggests that if anyone is experiencing stress or anxiety from this event, please reach out to a mental health professional.

Dr. Shane Westfall, assistant professor of psychology at Western Wyoming Community College, agrees with Johnson that when people are experiencing one of these hoaxes, they tend to believe that it is the real event.

“Given how often they occur in society today, it’s only reasonable to assume it’s an actual active shooter scenario,” he said. “Even upon finding out that it was not an actual emergency, many of the emotions are just as real as if it were. These hoaxes certainly provide the opportunity for real trauma and are not funny.”

On the other hand, Westfall believes “students can’t be too confident about their surroundings and going to school” these days.

“We may have many opinions on what the issue is and how to fix it, but we as a nation do have a problem here,” he pointed out. “Pretending that the school environment is safe doesn’t seem to be the right approach, however.”

He added, “If active shooter situations are going to continue to be an issue we face, then more active shooter training seems useful, as well as providing counseling staff on campus to help individuals deal with related issues.”

Westfall echoed Johnson’s thoughts on how the hoaxes affect the community at large when they occur.

“They are certainly tragic events,” he said. “They frighten not only those on campus, but those with social connections to those that are.”

Westfall mentioned that these calls have been made both domestically and from foreign sources for quite a while.

“The fact is some people enjoy making others feel worse,” he concluded. “Despite the increased stakes, some may simply see it as a prank. Others may have more nefarious purposes.

“Technology makes it extremely easy for one to create panic and also to make that panic seem to originate from elsewhere.”

This story was published on April 8, 2023.

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