By Jean D. Hakuzimana
November 15 was harrowing for those connected with education in Maine, when at least ten high schools across the state received threats of violence. Some went into lockdown; some evacuated students; some sent students home. The Public Safety Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation determined the threats were hoaxes – but nonetheless emotions ran high in those who had shown up to work and study within school walls that day, as well as in family members on the outside. And then on November 18 more threats were received online against two schools before the school day even began – so school was cancelled for the day in those cities.
Abusana Micky Bondo, a member of Portland’s school board, told Amjambo Africa that while such threats trigger terror in all parents, communication challenges can make a bad situation even worse for some immigrant parents. Robocalls are often used to send messages, but those who struggle with English, or don’t have a working telephone, can panic as they try to learn what is happening. “The immigrant community has a challenge of communicating with schools, and clear information may take longer to reach them,” she said.
Mardochée Mbongi, the newly elected president of COCOMaine – the organization of the Congolese Community of Maine – said that immigrant communities are deeply disturbed when they receive communications of shooting threats:
“Think about someone who has gone through war, has experienced threats and torture of many kinds – how would they feel at this time? It results in trauma and uncertainty.”
And threats of school shootings are definitely not what people expect when they choose Maine as a place to resettle their families. “Such circumstances affect the positive expectations for a new life, peace, and safety that immigrant parents expect when they resettle within the U.S. – most particularly in the state of Maine, known as a safe state,” Mbongi said.
Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed, principal of Deering High School in Portland, said that the schools in Portland do the best they can to communicate effectively with parents when there has been a threat. And they put a lot of energy into reassuring students, and helping them emotionally when they have been frightened. “We keep the environment positive at school, chatting with kids, wishing them a welcome in the morning, and a good night in the evening, and a “see you tomorrow” as they go home.”
Mbongi and Bondo both agreed that the more involved immigrant parents are in the life of their children at school, the better for their children – both when there is possible danger, as well as at other times. This is different than in the homelands of many immigrants, where parents are not asked to be involved in school life. “[In the U.S]…parent engagement is very important – that they stay connected, and reachable,” Bondo said.
Mbongi encouraged parents to remain connected to their children even when they are at school. “Be proactive – ready to quickly answer school phone calls. But also try to be less panicked, and trust the efforts the leaders are putting in place in order to eradicate such terrible occurrences,” he said.
Maine was far from alone in being hit by a string of terrifying threats against schools during the week before the holiday break. California, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, South Carolina, were all targeted as well, and all those threats turned out to be hoaxes as well. A similar wave of false threats happened in spring 2022 in many states – not Maine – and again earlier this fall. Federal officials are investigating the origin of the false threats, which may be coordinated. Motives are unknown, but results are not. The threats sow fear. Parents who believe their children need support or reassurance are encouraged to contact teachers or school counsellors.