(Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

Springfield police continue to investigate who called 911 just before noon on Nov. 3 to falsely report a shooting with multiple victims at Hillcrest High School. 

Meanwhile, the chief of the Springfield Public Schools police force spent Friday morning walking the halls of Hillcrest as officers, students and staff thanked one another for the way they handled the news that sent emergency crews and parents alike racing toward the school around noon Thursday. 

One parent among dozens who waited outside the school for several anxious hours Thursday said some parents added to the chaos. She said schools could help by telling parents in advance what plans are in place for an emergency to help keep more people calm at a time when minutes feel like hours. 

More info on the initial threat and response

Emergency responders at Hillcrest High School on Thursday, November 3, 2022. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

At 11:57 a.m. Thursday, police were dispatched to the north Springfield high school to respond to a 911 call about a shooting in progress. Springfield police spokesperson Cris Swaters said the first SPD officer to arrive on scene got there two minutes after the dispatch went out. Emergency crews from multiple agencies raced to the reported school shooting as well. 

Students, teachers and staff took cover in the building, which was locked down after the call to 911. Hillcrest families received an email after Springfield police, school police and others converged on the campus to conduct a classroom-by-classroom search that confirmed the reported shooting was a hoax. 

Police escorted groups of students out of the building to the school football field. At 1:45 p.m., Hillcrest families received another email explaining the plan to reunite students with family members who flocked to the school after learning about the threat from their children, scanner information, social media posts or other means. 

In a message to families at the end of the day, Hillcrest principal Rob Kroll thanked parents for support and understanding through the ordeal. 

“I know when you are waiting for information about the safety of your child, minutes can seem like hours. Please know that when we are responding to an emergency, our priority is to secure our school and confirm as many facts as possible before we communicate with you.”

False alarm reinforces school police chief’s desire to enhance safety measures at all Springfield schools

Emergency responders at Hillcrest High School November 3, 2022. (Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

On Friday morning, Jim Farrell, the SPS police chief, and two lieutenants joined the two officers assigned to Hillcrest in patrolling the school in uniform the day after they’d all helped secure it.  

“It was really, you know, a lot of people just thanking each other really, to be honest with you,” Farrell said. 

Farrell thanked teachers and staff for responding swiftly and seriously to the alert, and he said he was impressed that the initial report of a shooter was debunked and a school with around a thousand students was secured and cleared in about three hours. 

“All things considered, it was really a great response,” he said. 

The shooting falsely reported at Hillcrest occurred less than two weeks after a former student at a St. Louis high school gunned down a teacher and student and injured others before he was shot and killed by officers. 

In the days that followed the St. Louis shooting, Farrell reached out to law enforcement contacts across the state to see if he could learn for himself a detail that remains withheld from the public — how the shooter got inside the school. Officials there said they didn’t want to inspire a copycat. 

Farrell said he wanted to know anything that could help his police force better protect schools in Springfield. Farrell has played a lead role in an effort to keep doors closed and locked across the district this year. SPS has been promoting a “Stop the Prop” campaign to make sure no doors are propped open. And as a member of a community task force that looked at major SPS projects that could be funded through a school bond vote, Farrell was a lead advocate for including $2.5 million to purchase shatter-resistant film to cover glass on all first-floor windows and doors across the district. 

“I’m a firm believer that if we keep the evil out of our buildings, we’re leaps and bounds ahead of where we would be if we didn’t in keeping our students and staff safe,” he said. 

He said he’s had friends in law enforcement reach out to check in on him and learn more about the incident at Hillcrest already. He told them he’d let them know more after there’s been some more time to examine what happened, and what he and others can learn from it. 

“The minute we stop thinking we can improve, I probably need to retire,” he said. 

Parents, schools could benefit from more parental education in advance of emergencies, Hillcrest mom says

(Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers

Jennifer Shotwell’s oldest child was on his way to a 12:30 p.m. class at Ozarks Technical Community College when he called her to say he’d seen emergency vehicles surrounding Hillcrest High School, which another of her sons attends. She told him to head home to take care of his brother, who has developmental disabilities, so she could head to the school. 

Shotwell’s child with developmental disabilities had attended Hillcrest several years ago. She had asked school staff then about emergency evacuation plans because she was concerned staff would not be able to transport her son, who uses a wheelchair, over a grassy hill if the route called for it.

“Because when you’ve got a kid with significant disabilities, you have more questions,” she said.  

So she knew prior to Thursday that Gate 10 at the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds was where students eventually reunite with their families. When she heard the words “Gate 10” over the scanner as she drove to Hillcrest, she headed directly there. She and other parents would soon hear directly from Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams, who assured them there was no indication of a threat to their kids, and that they would be reunited with their kids after students were escorted from campus grounds. 

(Photo by Shannon Cay Bowers)

But many other parents, she said, could have used more information. 

“I think some of the chaos that happened yesterday and the rumors, it’s from parents not knowing what to do,” she said. “The teachers know the plan. The students, they know the plan. Parents have had nothing. I bet there were probably very few of us that knew that the evacuation plan involved the fairground, which is something that I know has been part of the plan for years. I think that some of it could have been prevented if the parents knew up front. And the parent behavior yesterday just baffled me from some of them.” 

She added: “Parents not knowing where to go kept (emergency workers) from getting from where they needed to be, because Grant (Avenue) at one point was a parking lot. There were people pulling ueys. There were people stopped in all three lanes. If there’s something going on, this is not helpful.”

SPS sent out two emails to Hillcrest families during the afternoon. The first informed families the building was on lockdown but that everyone was safe. The second described the reunion process for students and parents. 

“As far as their timing, I think they got the information out as fast as they could, which, if there’s an emergency situation, is never going to be fast enough,” Shotwell said. 

Shotwell said all schools ought to inform parents of the steps that students and staff must go through before students can be released following an emergency of any sort. Whether it was delivered through an email or an upcoming SPS University function or another manner, Shotwell said it could help. Shotwell graduated high school three years before the Columbine school shooting, and said she had no training as a student for a shooting incident. For others like her who never lived through it, being better informed would help. 

Shotwell shared some of these points over Twitter as well, and the SPS Twitter account responded and thanked her for sharing. Stephen Hall, SPS spokesman, said district staff will discuss how the communication of emergency procedures and protocols played out Thursday. He said it’s difficult to distill an emergency response into a set of steps for parents or others to follow, because no two emergencies are alike. 

Told about Shotwell’s suggestions, Hall said “it’s a great idea about SPS University.” The events bring parents and SPS staff together at school buildings several times during the school year, and Hall said they could offer an opportunity for a discussion of emergency procedures. 

Hear it from the students

Journalism students at Hillcrest High School produced a podcast about the incident. Here’s the podcast description:

A call to 911 about a shooter on the Hillcrest campus turned out to be a hoax. This is an inside look at what students experienced when rumors spread like wildfire during moments of confusion. Reported by Abi Phillips and Emily Clotfelter.

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson