How “swatting” calls spread when schools face real threats

Utah isn’t the only state dealing with these hoax reports of school shootings.

(Gene J. Puskar | AP Photo) Pittsburgh police and paramedics respond to Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School Wednesday, March 29, 2023 in the Oakland borough of Pittsburgh over a hoax report by an active shooter.

A spate of threats and false reports about shooters has been pouring into schools and colleges across the country for months, raising concerns among law enforcement officials and elected leaders.

Schools in Pennsylvania have recently been the target of so-called swatting. Computer-generated calls Wednesday made claims of active shooters, but it was all a hoax. A day earlier, nearly 30 Massachusetts schools received bogus threats.

School officials are already unnerved by the deadly school shooting last Monday at a Christian school in Nashville.

Here’s a look at the issues involved:

What is hitting?

Hundreds of swatting cases occur annually, with some using caller ID spoofing to disguise their number. The aim is to trick authorities, particularly a SWAT team, into replying to an address.

An FBI official said in November that they believe the wave of bogus threats focused on schools could be coming from outside the country.

Officials at the time said they had identified calls to about 250 colleges, 100 high schools and several junior high schools since early June falsely reporting that explosive devices were being planted at the schools or that a shooting was imminent.

The FBI did not immediately respond to emails from The Associated Press asking for comment Wednesday, but the threats have continued to mount in recent months.

Where else do swatting calls happen?

Few regions of the country have been spared from such calls and the disruptions that come with them.

Wednesday’s bogus calls in Pennsylvania led to lockdowns or evacuations in several counties, according to state police. Law enforcement had to take everyone seriously, no matter how dubious they seemed.

Pittsburgh police, for example, searched every room at Central Catholic High School even after learning within a minute that a report of people injured inside was untrue, said Thomas Stangrecki, the acting police chief.

“We treated it like a real incident,” Stangreki said. Another threat at a nearby Catholic school had worried parents gathered outside.

So many schools were attacked in Iowa earlier this month that Gov. Kim Reynolds complained at a news conference about the toll it was taking to confirm the terror calls were fake.

“It’s what no governor, it’s what no parent or anyone — superintendent, teacher, kids — wants to hear,” Reynolds said. “And we’re grateful and just so grateful, that was it.”

And in Minnesota, the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension issued an alert last month after bogus calls forced eight schools into lockdown over two days.

Are Fake Threats Preventing Response to Real Shootings?

Authorities are grappling with the false alarms in a country where mass shooters have killed hundreds of people throughout history. Riflemen have attacked in places like shops, theaters, and workplaces, but schools and colleges are perhaps where the carnage resonates most.

At US schools and colleges, 175 people have been killed in 15 mass shootings that resulted in the deaths of four or more people, not counting the perpetrator — from the 1999 Columbine High School massacre to Monday’s shooting in Nashville, Tennessee. That’s according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today, and Northeastern University, as well as other AP reports.

Are false threats also a risk?

Such calls have proven dangerous, even downright deadly.

In 2017, a police officer in Wichita, Kansas shot and killed a man while responding to a fake 911 call. Just this month, the city agreed to pay $5 million to settle a lawsuit, with the money going to the two children of 28-year-old Andrew Finch.

The prank call that led to his death began as a feud between two online gamers. One of the players recruited Tyler Barriss to “beat” the other player. But the address used was old and led police to Finch, who was not involved in the dispute nor playing the video game.

Barriss was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison while the other two players were sentenced to 15 and 18 months in prison.

Maryland police also shot a 20-year-old Maryland man in the face with rubber bullets after a fake hostage situation was reported at his home.

The Pittsburgh FBI nodded to the risk, noting in a statement on the school threat cases that it “takes swatting very seriously because it puts innocent people at risk.”


Peter Smith in Pittsburgh, Ron Todt in Philadelphia, Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington contributed to this report. How “swatting” calls spread when schools face real threats

Justin Scaccy

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