Schools across the nation experienced an uptick in school bomb and shooting threats in recent weeks. Many of these threats are believed to have been made by local individuals such as students or former students. But there are also increasing indicators that a number of these threats are “swatting” incidents — hoax threats intended to trigger a massive police response — that may lead to federal criminal charges involving individuals from far beyond the schoolhouse doors.
Bomb and shooting threats strike schools nationwide, many point to swatting
Schools from Florida to Connecticut, and Ohio to Arizona have been targets of recent bomb and shooting threats. A few examples include:
- 17 schools in Fairfield, Connecticut, locked down and then closed, sending more than 10,000 students home after receiving multiple bomb and shooting threats in their school-community. Police say the FBI is involved in the case and officials believe “swatting” may have been involved.
- Schools from the southern part of Ohio around Cincinnati to those mid-state and all the way north to the Greater Cleveland area were targets of threats in recent weeks. Reports indicate the FBI is involved in these investigations. The Ohio Fusion Center Network, a unit of the Ohio Department of Homeland Security, issued a bulletin in late September about “multiple bomb-threats and SWATTING incidents in Ohio schools and schools across the country.” The bulletin noted that swatting characteristics often include use of internet-based phones, caller ID masking services, and other spoofing software. The fusion center report says federal, state, and local officials are working to identify the origin of the calls.
- A 29-year-old New York immigrant of Russian background and a video game enthusiast arrested for suspicion of phoning in shooting threats to at least four schools in Flagstaff, Arizona, is also reportedly suspected in similar threats in Washington state. The FBI is investigating nationwide school-threat games, according to a Washington state news story.
- Schools in Princeton, New Jersey, were victims of swatting 10 times since April, school and police officials recently told parents. Police and school officials said last week they believe the threats are coming from people in the electronic gaming community engaged in a contest where points are scored by how much real-life chaos they cause in the real world.
Local school threats vs. swatting threats
Although it is not always a clear separation, we tend to see to general categories of school threat makers:
- Threats made by students, former students and/or others with a connection to the local school community. Our study of more than 800 violent school threats nationwide released earlier this year found more than one-third of these threats were sent electronically, including by e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other trendy social media apps.
- While threats with a local connection are most common, we have seen an increasing number of threats appearing to fall into the category of “swatting” where there is no clear connection to students, former students or others associated with the targeted school-community. Swatting threats can involve phone calls made with computer-generated “robotic” voices as well as messages sent by other electronic means. Seven threats in our study involved specific references to swatting while around 40 incidents (5%) at the time reported federal law enforcement being involved in the investigations.
Swatting and the online gaming community connection
The online gaming community is often cited as the origin of swatting. Gamers prank fellow gamers by using technology to spoof caller ID systems and 911 call center technology to make their calls appear to be coming from the location of their fellow gamers. Calls allege a fake emergency situation to trigger a massive law enforcement and other public safety agency response to their fellow gamer’s location as the swatter watches the police response by the video camera at the victim’s location.
In many cases, swatters are said to get points in their game based upon the number of, and/or amount of response to, their threats. In other situations, the punishment for individuals who lost online games reportedly has been to “swat” a number of targets. Many of these swatting threats are made to schools and other targets from across state and even international borders.
It is important to recognize that the vast majority of people involved in online gaming do not engage in swatting. One experienced gamer told me that gamers are often mistakenly viewed as unemployed “kids” with nothing to do. The reality is that not only are gamers gainfully employed, but the gaming field includes doctors, lawyers and other highly paid professionals who are avid gamers.
In fact, I would argue that many gamers are highly talented and skilled individuals whose talents and skills are nothing short of amazing! The ability to use technology to track the locations of fellow gamers, spoof 911 call centers, and manipulate internet communications systems shows a level of technical skill suggesting that a great deal of talent is out there that could be tapped into by private businesses and government agencies.
In short, while the origin and current incidents appear to have strong connections to online gaming, the majority of gamers are not swatters. The online gaming community should not be stroked with a negative broad brush because of the actions of a few.
Expect a major federal crackdown with FBI-driven criminal indictments crossing state and international borders
There are a growing number of indicators that a large-scale federal investigation is underway of swatting threats to schools and other locations across the nation. While the FBI typically says publicly they are there to provide “technical assistance” to local law enforcement, and they indeed do so, their presence and involvement in local school bomb and shooting threat incidents across the country suggests a probable federal investigation is also underway. Considering swatting threats often originate from across state and international borders, and involve the use of telecommunications, federal jurisdiction in these cases should not be surprising.
Acknowledgments of FBI involvement in several cases to date, including the Arizona and Washington state incidents, as well as the Princeton, New Jersey cases, noted above, supports the belief that broader federal investigations are ongoing. I expect this to be the case in some of the Ohio threats, as well.
The costs of swatting and other threats are huge. Law enforcement costs have run in five and six-figure ranges for the manpower and time involved in investigating school threats. The anxiety created in a school-community cannot be quantified.
In addition to proposed criminal penalty enhancements by some state legislators, Senator Charles Schumer of New York has also proposed federal anti-swatting legislation.
Schools need threat assessment protocols, security and emergency plans, and crisis communications plans
Swatting and other school threats hit fast and hard, leaving schools little time before anxiety permeates their school-community. As we concluded in our national study of violent school threats, schools need trained threat assessment teams with threat assessment protocols developed in collaboration with their first responders. School leaders should assess and then react, not react and then assess, as knee-jerk evacuations and school closings can actually put students and staff in a less safe situation.
School must also have crisis communications plans and a social media strategy. Principals and superintendents need to be equipped to hit the ground running in communicating to students, staff, parents, media and their school-community. Our research and consulting experience has found that schools can successfully manage the actual threats, but if they fail to have solid crisis communications plans, their school-community will be harbor ill-will and a lack of confidence in school leaders that will be hard to overcome.
We developed a multi-disciplinary training program called STAT – School Threat Assessment Training to help principals, superintendents, police and school crisis team members better understand current threat trends, how to form threat assessment teams, deploy best practices in threat assessments, heighten school security and refine emergency preparedness plans, and equip themselves with the critical elements of crisis communications. STAT is unique in that its presenters are all veteran preK-12 school security and police administrators, an experienced building and central office school administrator, an internationally-recognized school psychologist, and leaders in school crisis communications and social media strategy on school safety issues.
Today’s threats are different. Federal charges are likely forthcoming for swatting incidents, but principals and superintendents cannot wait. School leaders must be trained and armed with emergency, security and crisis communications plans to hit the ground running when these threats hit their school communities.
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