Schools across California, Michigan, and Vermont dealt with the disruption of false reports of shootings in their buildings this week that generated lockdowns and dramatic police responses.
The reports were part of the latest wave of swatting calls—a term that describes intentionally false reports made by pranksters intent on sowing chaos. In some cases, school leaders aren’t aware of the reports until police forcefully run into their buildings in response.
Police in Saginaw Township, Mich., even rammed a cruiser through the locked front doors of Nouvel Catholic Central High School Tuesday in response to a call that claimed two students in the building had been shot, local news station WNEM reported.
“It was determined the call was most likely a hoax within the first few minutes of officers being on scene,” police told the news station. “However, officers continued to conduct a systematic search of the building to verify there were no injured students or staff.”
Schools in at least five California districts and at least seven Michigan districts were subject to such false reports Tuesday. Vermont schools dealt with a spate of at least 21 false reports Wednesday. And dozens of buildings—those that were targeted in swatting calls and other schools nearby—locked down as a precaution while law enforcement worked through buildings room by room to investigate the legitimacy of the reports.
Local, state, and federal law enforcement officials said they planned to investigate the calls to determine if they were coordinated. The FBI and local police departments launched similar investigations after another large wave of swatting calls affected dozens of schools in at least six states in September. In the time since, schools in other states have faced smaller spurts of swatting calls, often hitting multiple communities in the same region on the same day.
“We cannot empower people like this, nor let them undermine the emotional well-being of our students and our team,” Eric Swain, principal of Clovis West High School in Fresno, Calif., wrote in a letter to parents Tuesday, informing them that classes would continue after the school dealt with swatting calls Feb. 3 and 6.
Schools in Meridian Township, Mich., closed Wednesday after a false shooting report at a high school Tuesday led to a rapid police response and rumors on social media of casualties. As in the case of a real shooting, anxious parents waited at a nearby church to be reunited with their children following a lockdown.
“This was no mere hoax or victimless prank,” Ingham County Prosecutor John Dewane said in a statement. “For many students and their families, the terror was all too real.”
Source of school swatting calls
While it appears many clusters of school swatting calls are coordinated, law enforcement officials have not announced a source, motive, or a determination if multiple perpetrators are involved.
Swatting calls have existed for years, but schools are a relatively new target. Swatting is often associated with online gamers. In the earliest instances, players would dishonestly summon law enforcement to competitors’ homes or businesses as a prank.
Hoax calls about schools bring disruption on a larger scale. In the wake of several mass shootings at schools in the last decade, lawmakers and educators regularly discuss how to prepare for and respond to those events. Claims of school violence, even ones that seem improbable, typically spur a quick, coordinated response.
In October, NPR and Wired magazine separately traced dozens of school swatting calls back to a service called TextNow, an online platform that allows internet users around the world to make anonymous calls using U.S. numbers, providing only an email address to gain access.
An FBI memo obtained by Wired shows that at least one swatting call came from a TextNow user whose internet signal came from a service owned by the Ethiopian government. NPR also found local investigations linking 80 calls to a single Ethiopia-linked number in a single day.
But it’s unclear if that caller is responsible for the burst of hoax calls this week, or for smaller waves of calls in the meantime. And school safety experts have warned of potential copycat attacks from bad-intentioned people who recognize the ability to cause mass-scale disruptions.
In January, Florida and Wisconsin law enforcement agencies said they are investigating a 15-year-old Sarasota, Fla., boy on charges of terroristic threatening for school and residential swatting calls in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Indiana, and Ontario, Canada.
In December, officers arrested a 20-year-old Charlotte, N.C., man on charges including making false statements to law enforcement, alleging he made a string of swatting calls to schools between January and June of 2021.
Police in Colerain Township, Ohio, arrested an 11-year-old girl in November for a hoax swatting call at a middle school. Her mother insisted it was not her voice in the 911 recording, local station WCPO reported.
Ohio enacted a new law in January that deems providing “false or misleading information to a law enforcement agency, emergency service provider or public safety answering point” a fourth-degree felony punishable by up to 18 months in prison. Charges would be escalated if someone was injured in the law enforcement response.
How schools can prepare for lockdowns, swatting calls
As Education Week has reported, school safety experts and principals who’ve experienced hoax shooting calls said educators can take action now to ensure their districts are positioned to minimize chaos in the event of a swatting attempt.
School districts should regularly communicate with families about their plan for lockdown events, what sorts of events might lead to a lockdown, how administrators will determine that a building is safe, and how they will communicate with families during emergencies, Amy Klinger, co-founder of the Educator’s School Safety Network, told Education Week in September.
Information about lockdown and safety protocols should be included in routine places, like back-to-school materials, so parents can process it in a non-crisis setting, Klinger said.
During a lockdown, administrators should communicate with families as clearly and specifically as possible about what precautions schools are taking, using tools like mass texting and social media, she said.
Schools should also coordinate with law enforcement regularly to plan for a range of safety events, principals said. And they should give students and staff separate opportunities to debrief after the chaos of a swatting call. Read more advice here.
The Ephrata, Wash., district made such preparations in January when it created a web page to inform families about its safety procedures and sent home a letter to inform parents about swatting concerns, even though the district had not dealt with a hoax report.
“We hope to educate and inform our families so that the first time they’re hearing about this is not in response to an occurrence at one of our schools,” Superintendent Tim Payne said in that letter.