Can Campuses Stop School ‘Swatting’ Threats?

Swatting incidents continue to plague our schools, but combining threat assessment strategies with security technology can help stem the tide.
Published: April 17, 2023

On a single day last October, over a dozen high schools across Florida received calls about an active shooter on campus. Administrators and security personnel moved quickly, putting campuses on high alert and moving in to assess the threat.

Schools were disrupted and students, parents, and teachers were emotionally affected. Law enforcement were right to sound the alarm and treat these threats seriously. But after all the noise and terror, every single threat was determined to be fake.

“Swatting” is the making of a prank call to law enforcement or schools for the express purpose of disruption and fear-mongering. Not only is swatting a massive hindrance and a waste of resources, it can actually be quite dangerous, as putting law enforcement and campus on high alert can lead to innocent bystanders being hurt.

Unfortunately, while this day in Florida was particularly striking, it is indicative of a larger trend. Fake reports of gun violence have been on a steep rise since last September.

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School safety personnel and leaders must develop new tactics and strategies to deal with the increasing prevalence of swatting. While difficult, the ultimate aim is to properly assess the threat while maintaining as little disruption to campus as possible. Administrators should take advantage of every tool in their belt, including new technologies that are well-suited for this particular crime.

The Intricacies of Threat Assessment in Swatting

As law enforcement, when conducting a threat assessment in any scenario, we really are assessing two different things: the threat, and the person or persons making the threat. The first tends to be the easier of the two – a bomb threat, an active shooter on a school campus, or a terrorist attack is clearly more serious than, say, a threat to create civil disorder by staging a protest.

The second assessment, determining the credibility and capability of the individual or group making the threat, is often more nuanced and difficult.

Most colleges and universities currently have a multi-disciplinary behavior assessment team or a threat assessment team that are already actively assessing potential threats to the institution. These teams have a variety of tools to assess and mitigate the threats presented by individuals.

Although behavior assessment teams are extremely important to identifying threats presented by specific individuals, anonymous threats provide limited information about the individual presenting the threat. In many swatting incidents, the suspect is not even close to campus – they are most often calling from a remote location. Sharing information and maintaining communications with other campus, local, state and federal organizations can help to determine if the swatting incident is part of a broader pattern of incidents or is an institution-specific incident.

If we have knowledge of who the swatter may be, we ask ourselves several questions: to what extent do they appear to have the resources, intent, and motivation to carry out the threat? Was the person making the threat specific in his/her claim? Would he/she have the physical ability and access to carry out this action?

This assessment process also requires understanding the context of the intended target. For example, I served as the safety leader of a large Historically Black College and University (HBCU). In addition to the typical threats possible at any large university, HBCUs are subject to the added component of potentially facing threats tied to hate crimes, racism, and racially-motivated terrorism.

Finally, assess the context of the overall environment and situation. Have there been recent disruptions or disturbances in the area surrounding campus recently? Was there a controversial staff firing that might prompt a violent response? Have there been events in the news that might trigger action by an unstable individual or dangerous group?

Once all of these components have been considered, safety leaders can feel confident they have performed a comprehensive assessment and determine an action plan accordingly.

Using Technology to Aid Your Threat Assessment

Most campuses have a robust camera system intended for traditional security concerns – parking lot safety, vehicle break-ins, vandalism, and the like. This camera system should also be deployed to alleviate disruptions caused by swatting.

Cameras can help determine the credibility of both the threat and the person making the threat. For example, let’s say the threat specifically detailed a bomb planted in the science building on campus. A review of all license plate readers, video cameras, access control systems and the like should, at a minimum, be able to tell you whether anyone who is not authorized to be in that building entered within the past 24 hours.

Automated license plate reader (ALPR) systems can be particularly helpful on campuses, as there are typically a defined number of entrances and exits. An advanced ALPR system allows law enforcement or safety personnel to denote the vehicles of authorized visitors (faculty, staff, and students) and weed out any vehicles that are not supposed to be there. If all vehicles detected in the area are known and authorized, the threat may more likely be a case of swatting.

Conversely, an ALPR system can also do the opposite – alert security personnel of vehicles that are known to be potential threats. Vehicles known to belong to disgruntled former employees, suspended students, suspects previously arrested for a serious crime and individuals trespassed from campus represent a potential threat when they show up on campus. Campus police can mark these individuals’ license plates in the system and receive alerts if the vehicle enters campus.

One of the basic principles of threat assessment is that no threat assessment is ever over.  Sometimes individuals with a grudge against an organization can harbor feelings of anger and persecution for many years.  They may see the organization as the initiating factor in a series of events that led them to hit rock bottom years later.  Once the individual is no longer associated with your institution, it’s more difficult to assess the likelihood of a threat because you have limited data. However, receiving notification from an ALPR system when that individual shows up unexpectedly on campus can provide early notification that could prevent or mitigate any intended acts of violence.

These advanced technologies can help both during the threat assessment phase and in response during an active adverse event on campus.

Investigate All Threats – Including Swatting

Though a swatting threat is typically not as harmful as an actual active shooter or bomb situation, it still must be investigated and dealt with appropriately. A significant body of peer-reviewed research shows that the most effective deterrence to crime is the certainty of being caught. Swatting is no exception.

It is important to use all investigative resources at your disposal to identify the swatting suspect. Following the incident, utilize the same technology systems that assisted in threat assessment to obtain investigative clues. Did a security camera capture the color, make, or a partial license plate number of a suspicious vehicle? Your license plate reading cameras can then hone in on where else that vehicle has been in and around campus.

Ensure you’ll know when the suspect returns to campus, by utilizing the Hot List feature in many license plate reader systems. Safety personnel will be alerted when the suspect vehicle enters campus. Officers will then be able to respond appropriately. This type of a system is also useful when access is shared across different campuses, as suspects may conduct a swatting incident at one school or campus and then later, attempt the same maneuver at another. Eliminating gaps in communication between safety personnel is key.

The rise in swatting is certainly a problem for K-12 and higher education leaders and personnel, but it is not an intractable one. With intention and informed, data-driven knowledge, campus safety leaders can create the necessary protocols, deploy the best technology, and instill the right culture to deter and decrease swatting.

Author: Dr. Jack Moorman is one of the pre-eminent experts on campus safety. Dr. Moorman served as North Carolina State University Police Chief, Interim Police Chief and Associate Vice Chancellor of Public Safety at NC A&T State University, and Interim Director of Public Safety/Risk Management at Presbyterian College. He teaches about these concepts as a National Association of Campus Safety Administrators instructor and is a School Safety consultant at Flock Safety.

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