Swatting calls across the U.S. leave students in 'constant state of fear'

Last month, Paul Harrington heard about active shooter reports at two schools in Connecticut, reminding him of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, which left 26 people, including 20 children, dead in 2012.

“As I was gathering as much information as I could, I, unfortunately, received the call that where my daughter attends had a potential active shooter situation there,” Harrington, the first selectman — a city job similar to a mayor of a town — in Windsor Locks, Conn., told Yahoo News.

“My heart literally went into my stomach, just like any other parent,” he said.

Paul Harrington with his arm around his young daughter, who is eating a cookie.
Paul Harrington and his daughter. (Courtesy Paul Harrington)

But from the first call made on Oct. 21, Harrington said the reports seemed suspicious, as the calls came from someone outside of the school. “Usually we're getting calls from the school stating that there's an active shooter going on — we're getting a call from either a student, a teacher or somebody in the front office,” he explained.

On that same day, at least 17 communities across Connecticut faced calls making fake reports of gun violence. Dozens of law enforcement officials responded to the schools but found no active shooters, and within two hours the lockdowns were lifted.

“As soon as we were given the all-clear, I tried to reunite the kids with their parents as quickly as possible. And what I saw on parents' faces and kids’ faces was an image I never want to see ever again,” Harrington said.

Over 250 schools nationwide have experienced gun violence in 2022, according to David Riedman, the founder of K-12 School Shooting Database, a source that documents anytime a gun is brandished or fired on school property in the United States.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department takes part in an active shooter training drill.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department takes part in an active shooter training drill at Rosemead High School in Rosemead, Calif., in July. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“We're already seeing violence that's four to eight times higher than it's been in the last 50 years,” Riedman said.

But as for fake reports of gun violence — otherwise known as swatting — NPR recently reported that there have been over 180 such reports of school threats in 28 states between Sept. 13 and Oct. 21 alone. “Students in the classroom don’t know that it’s not a shooting. So mentally, they’re thinking that they’re about to die,” Riedman said.

Hollywood High School in Los Angeles was one of the schools that received a swatting call on Sept. 13. While no shooter or shooting victims were found, Ashley Castillo, a student and volunteer with Students Demand Action, says she shouldn’t have to live "in this constant state of fear."

“For a generation that has been forced to grow up practicing how to stay alive when the shooting starts, every lockdown feels real. There’s nothing fake about the trauma of realizing you might not make it out of school alive, and it’s unacceptable that students like me have to live this way,” Castillo said.

Students participate in a mass casualty exercise at an elementary school in Clearwater, Fla.
Students participate in a mass casualty exercise at an elementary school in Clearwater, Fla. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via Zuma Press)

In 2019, Wisconsin state Rep. LaKeshia Myers introduced the “BBQ Becky Bill” to reduce false calls to law enforcement and prevent the misuse of police resources. The bill would have charged an individual with a misdemeanor for calling law enforcement to a location without a verifiable reason.

As schools in Wisconsin receive swatting calls, Myers says this is a bill she hopes to get back on the table. “It’s a waste of the public resources that we have when you send law enforcement into situations where they are utilizing their resources and the time commitment that they have, and the manpower to respond to something that turns out to be a hoax,” Myers told Yahoo News.

“The other part of it puts the community on heightened alert, with the history of school shootings that we have in this country, and also with shootings, mass shootings, in public spaces,” she added.

Mac Hardy, director of operations at the National Association of School Resource Officers, says schools that have resource officers on campus are in a better position to respond to swatting calls.

“By having a school resource officer on campus, if a swatting call does occur, [they] can assess the situation within seconds to minutes, to figure out if this is a real threat or a hoax. And then by radio or by other forms of communication, inform incoming police officers, dispatchers and school officials,” Hardy said.

But he said finding and prosecuting the individuals responsible for these threats is crucial. “There’s also thought that some of these calls are coming from overseas. And the FBI is investigating these, and hopefully, they can come up to some conclusions and help stop some of these calls from being made,” Hardy said.

Alexandria Police Department school resource officer Johnny Larios
A police department school resource officer is stationed at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. (Matt McClain/Washington Post via Getty Images)

Authorities say these hoax calls are dangerous and the public should stay alert and inform law enforcement of any suspicious activity. “The FBI is aware of the numerous swatting incidents wherein a report of an active shooter at a school is made. The FBI takes swatting very seriously because it puts innocent people at risk,” the FBI said in a statement.

And experts are concerned that the number of swatting calls is continuing to increase. “If there's a continued flood of different jokes and hoaxes and false reports like this, people may stop taking them seriously,” Riedman said. “And the consequences of either police or schools not taking something seriously is that if a real shooting were to happen, nobody would respond.”

“Each of these incidents is another infuriating reminder that this is the reality for our kids in school,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action. “Even false alarms of shootings on school grounds can be traumatizing for entire communities, from the students and staff who have to experience it, the first responders who have to prepare themselves to respond to the unimaginable, and parents who wait to hear whether or not their kids are safe. We have to do more to end gun violence in this country so that when we send our kids to school, we don’t have to wonder whether or not they’ll come home safe.”