Opinion: The dangers of school shooting hoaxes
Since mid-September, 'swatting' calls have targeted schools in at least 34 states and the District of Columbia
By Mo Canady
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
ATLANTA — With alarming frequency, law enforcement agencies around the U.S. have received via telephone false reports of school shootings. These hoaxes resulted in emergency responses by law enforcement officers and other first responders from multiple agencies. Such incidents are often called “swatting,” because they’re like cases in which callers, for various nefarious reasons, intended to prompt responses by special weapons and tactics teams to the homes of targeted individuals.
Since mid-September, such swatting calls have targeted schools in at least 34 states and the District of Columbia, according to news reports compiled by the National Association of School Resource Officers, a professional organization of law enforcement officers who work in schools.
In many cases, hoax callers targeted multiple schools in the same state on the same day and at about the same time. Those attacks indicate a level of coordination and sophistication that exceeds the capabilities of most K-12 students. Indeed, news reports indicate that the callers in many such cases appeared to use internet-based phone services apparently registered to overseas computer addresses and spoke with what was described as a thick accent. It’s difficult to speculate why any overseas person or organization would perpetrate such coordinated attacks.
In some cases, however, the calls appear to have been pranks by students. A news report from Ohio indicated that the sound of child laughter could be heard in the background of a call that targeted a school there. It’s easier to guess why a student might make a swatting call. Potential motives include getting out of school for any number of reasons (including delaying a coming exam) and alleviating boredom.
While stopping swatting calls from overseas could prove difficult, informing domestic pranksters of the potential dangers of their hoaxes might help reduce such calls by students.
And such calls are certainly far from harmless, regardless of the source or motive.
Perhaps the greatest danger of swatting calls is real physical injury. In 2017, Kansas police responding to a false call at a home accidentally shot and killed the 28-year-old resident who was the target of the hoax. In September, a Riverdale, Georgia, police officer’s patrol car crashed while she responded to a fake school shooting call, requiring hospital treatment for the officer. That same month, an upset parent punched a school window in Texas while waiting for access to his child after a swatting call. The resulting laceration was serious enough to lead officers on the scene to apply a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.
The psychological dangers of swatting are just as real. After police receive the call, schools typically take all the same steps they would in a real shooting. They announce lockdowns that lead to students and staff hiding in classroom corners, fearing that they will be the next victims of a school mass shooting like those in Uvalde, Texas; Parkland, Florida; Sandy Hook, Connecticut; or Littleton, Colorado. These swatting victims know from recent history that it’s entirely possible that a gunman could enter and start shooting. Psychology experts will tell you that the resulting trauma can have the same effects as surviving a real mass shooting.
Police must treat these calls as real until proven otherwise. That typically means multiple patrol officers from several agencies responding simultaneously from all directions with emergency lights and sirens operating. Emergency responses to any incident increase the risk of injury to officers and civilians, so a call to which large numbers of units respond — like a report of a mass shooting at a school — increases such risks exponentially. Compounding that danger is the number of parents who, having been contacted by students via mobile devices, rush to the school in vain attempts to assure the safety of their children.
School shooter calls can also increase the time required for agencies to respond to other incidents — including actual violent crimes — by tying up resources that would otherwise be available.
A risk also exists that too many false calls could adversely affect the mindsets of responders. Those who doubt the authenticity of an emergency call might at least unconsciously treat it less urgently, making them less mentally prepared to take necessary action. Responders, especially law enforcement officers, must guard against unconscious complacency that false calls could create.
Given the risks and adverse consequences associated with swatting calls, law enforcement officers must be able to determine the validity of a call as quickly as possible. Having a school resource officer (SRO) assigned to every campus can greatly expedite this critical assessment. Often, SROs hear the dispatch as it goes out to patrol officers and can provide an on-scene assessment via radio within seconds.
Emergency communication operators also play a vital role in ascertaining whether a call might be false. Most real active shooter events inundate 911 operators with calls from the scene. Swatting situations, however, often result in only a single call, information that dispatchers can provide to commanders. For schools that have no SRO, dispatchers can also telephone administrative offices as soon as possible to advise them of the call and ask whether any unusual activity has been seen or heard.
NASRO encourages SROs to initiate discussions within their agencies regarding response protocols. They should also facilitate discussions with school administrators, staff, faculty, parents and students about how to act and what to expect if a shooting is reported.
Finally, NASRO recommends that schools provide necessary counseling after swatting calls, to help faculty, staff and students process the associated trauma.
Mo Canady is executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.