School Swatting Threats: How Common Are They and What Do They Cost Taxpayers?

In just one month in 2023, at least 210 swatting threats were made against K-12 schools, according to one researcher.
Published: March 4, 2024

Swatting is the act of reporting fake threats to emergency responders to elicit a large law enforcement response. Many industries have repeatedly fallen victim to these calls, including K-12 schools. These false threats not only suck up and divert precious resources but they leave room for real dangers.

The day after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a Florida police officer shot himself in the leg inside a school while responding to a false shooting report. During the response to the 2019 shooting at Colorado’s STEM School Highlands Ranch, a school security officer shot at a police officer and missed, striking a student. This past May, a police officer accidentally discharged his firearm during a swatting incident at a Massachusetts high school, triggering an even larger police response.

So, how common are swatting threats? The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) estimates there were at least 1,000 swatting incidents in 2019. Perhaps more shocking is a 2023 survey from the ADL that found 11% of teens and 5% of adults say they experienced swatting in their lifetime.

Hal Berghel, a computer science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, wrote in a March 2023 report that swatting has become so common that several subclasses have already been defined, including celebrity swatting, gamer swatting, partisan swatting, and hate swatting. Some perpetrators have targeted multiple subclasses with swatting threats, including a 17-year-old boy who was arrested in Jan. 2024 for allegedly calling police to say he was entering the Masjid Al Hayy Mosque in Florida to carry out a mass shooting. The teen referenced Satanism and somehow simulated gunfire. The same boy is also accused of making hundreds of swatting threats against Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), homes of FBI agents, and government offices.

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In April 2023, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) finally called on the FBI to track these incidents more closely and work to prevent them. The following month, the FBI launched a national online database to help facilitate information-sharing between hundreds of police departments and law enforcement agencies. Chief Scott Schubert with the bureau’s Criminal Justice Information Services said these efforts will provide the FBI with “a common operating picture of what’s going on across the country.”

How Common Are Swatting Incidents at K-12 Schools?

Now, more specifically, how common are swatting threats on K-12 campuses? According to the K-12 School Shooting Database, maintained by researcher David Riedman, there were at least 723 swatting hoaxes at K-12 schools in 2023 alone. As of March 4, 2024, there were at least 51 incidents so far this year. See the monthly breakdown of Riedman’s findings below.

How Common Are K-12 Swatting Calls

NPR estimates nearly 200 schools were targeted last year in September and October. During that same time frame, at least 28 states reported hoax 911 calls about active shooters on school campuses. In December, NPR also reported that one man made hundreds of false active shooter reports to hundreds of K-12 campuses and law enforcement agencies, impacting at least eight counties in Georgia.

What Do Swatting Incidents Cost Taxpayers?

It is difficult to estimate the average cost of a swatting incident since it can significantly vary based on several factors, including the response by law enforcement, disruption of services, potential damages, and legal proceedings, among other things.

A 2015 swatting incident in Rochester, New York, cost $15,000. Another 2015 swatting incident in Denver cost $25,000. A 2014 swatting incident in Long Island, N.Y., cost $100,000. In 2017, the city of Wichita, Kansas, paid $5 million to settle a lawsuit after a police officer killed 28-year-old Andrew Finch while responding to what ended up being a swatting call. In 2023, 17 swatting threats were made against Washington schools, impacting 55,000 students and costing $1.3 million in lost resources.

The location of the incident is also likely to impact the cost. Swatting incidents at K-12 schools may cost more than swatting incidents at an office building because it is likely to elicit a larger police response since children are a vulnerable population.

“A rule of thumb is that a law enforcement response per person costs between $125 and $150 an hour,” Don Beeler, CEO at TDR Technology Solutions, told KOMO News following the 2023 Washington schools swatting calls. “Depending on how many hours they were there, you could be looking at $50 to $100 grand just in law enforcement response for that one incident. When these (fake threats) come in, if you’re law enforcement, it doesn’t matter what agency you’re with. You’re running to the school.”

There are also intangible consequences that come with these incidents, such as the psychological impact and well-being of individuals directly involved. Due to these considerations and because swatting is only recently being tracked on a larger scale, it’s not surprising there is a significant discrepancy in what experts say each incident costs.

During an 11-month project with The Economist, Riedman said he helped determine each swatting incident at a school costs at least $100,000 for each emergency response, including SWAT call out, off-duty call in, and outside agencies searching the schools in the hours following a threat. Riedman said last year’s false threats cost K-12 schools more than $82,300,000. This does not include other costs such as missed class time, missed work for parents picking up their children, and physical damages, which Riedman says is “easily in the hundreds of millions.”

The ADL estimates all swatting incidents — not just those in schools — cost affected communities at least $10,000. This estimate also does not include investigations, property repairs, and counseling. Lauren Shapiro, a professor at the City University of New York who has researched swatting, estimates each swatting incident costs between $15,000 and $25,000, according to The Hill.

How Can We Mitigate Swatting?

In his research, Riedman identified an established pattern and profile from swatting incidents in more than 30 states in 2023. In each incident, dozens or even hundreds of officers were dispatched to the school. As technology and artificial intelligence (AI) continue to advance, callers are able to mask their voices, phone numbers, or IP addresses. Since we can’t completely stop hoaxes from happening, Riedman strongly suggests law enforcement scales back their response to these reported threats.

Police often worry that inaction — or at the very least perceived inaction — could result in more harm than if they overreact to a reported threat, like with law enforcement’s lack of response during the Robb Elementary School mass shooting. Riedman gives an example in Michigan where officers rammed their police car through the front door of a locked school after receiving a call for a shooting in progress. Authorities did not attempt to contact the school which was not aware that a swatting call had been placed.

Learning how to identify false threats is crucial, and some clues can be found in the call itself. For example, Riedman describes a 2023 swatting incident at a Nebraska high school where dozens of officers with rifles ran into the building after receiving a single swatting call to the local police station’s front desk — a non-emergency number. To give context, when a teenager opened fire at Michigan’s Oxford High School in 2021, the local 911 call center received more than 100 calls within the first minute. During the school shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School in 2023, there were dozens of 911 calls placed in the first few minutes of the attack.

Jeffrey Yarbrough, chief of the Hutto (Texas) Police Department and former chief for the Round Rock Independent School District, said in an interview with Campus Safety that assessing threats and evaluating them to determine credibility can’t be done in a vacuum — it must be done through partnerships between school districts, local law enforcement, and fusion centers.

“We need to make sure that our response protocols and our procedures are so solid, so consistently tested, analyzed, and modified if needed so that if you’re faced with a swatting incident or a false threat of an active shooting event, your response is going to still be the same, regardless of whether you know it in advance or if it happens instantly,” he said. “Your response is still going to be the same, which is creating those time barriers for law enforcement to respond and utilizing technology.”

Yarbrough recommends schools de-brief following each incident to determine what systems and solutions worked and what gaps existed. Schools should then share their findings with other local school districts that may also fall victim to swatting.

Lawmakers Repeatedly Attempt to Criminalize Swatting

Another way leaders and lawmakers are trying to mitigate swatting is by attempting to change how it is prosecuted. Swatting is notoriously challenging to prosecute since there is no single federal law criminalizing it. It is typically prosecuted under the false information and hoaxes statute (18 U.S. Code 1038), which carries up to five years in prison, TND reports. The penalty expands up to 20 years or life imprisonment if someone is seriously injured or killed. In 2019, the California man who placed the swatting call that led to the death of Andrew Finch was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison.

State-level penalties also significantly vary. In Texas, it is a Class A misdemeanor to make a false report and is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. The charges can be enhanced if the person can be proven to have committed a similar act before. In New Jersey, a false report of a bomb threat, active shooter, or hostage situation can carry a sentence of five to 10 years or 10 to 20 years if someone gets hurt.

In Jan. 2024, two Republican lawmakers, Senators Rick Scott (R-Fla.) and Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.), introduced legislation to prohibit swatting calls under 18 U.S. Code 1038. The legislation would amend the federal criminal hoax statute to establish strict penalties specific to swatting, including up to 20 years in prison if incidents result in serious injury.

Previous efforts to create federal legislation criminalizing swatting, however, have repeatedly failed, according to The Hill. The Interstate Swatting Hoax Act of 2015, Anti-Swatting Act of 2019, and Preserving Safe Communities by Ending Swatting Act of 2021 did not become law after being introduced.

Professor: More Mental Health Resources Needed to Stop Swatting

Berghel, the previously mentioned computer science professor at UNLV, doesn’t believe fines and penalties are the answer but rather research conducted by mental health professionals.

“When it comes to 911 swatting, the most important questions of our age is, ‘Why are 911 swatters engaging in this behavior?’ and ‘How can society deal with it?’” he told ARS Technica.

This sentiment lends itself to Berghel’s belief that the “greatest benefit” from creating the FBI database could be giving access to mental health professionals, noting it is common for “big government’s solutions to computing crimes” to be “reactive and retributive—rather than solving problems at the source.”

“My initial reaction to the proposed FBI database plan is that I would feel more confident if this matter were given to the FBI profilers than data engineers, law enforcement investigators, and ultimately, politicians,” he said.

Additional Swatting Resources

Here are some resources on addressing swatting threats on school campuses:

For additional stories on swatting, visit campussafetymagazine.com/tag/swatting.

What Can You Do to Protect Yourself From Swatting?

While Campus Safety focuses on threats that impact K-12 schools, colleges, and hospitals, individuals are often targeted by swatting threats as well. One man and his wife have been swatted at their Milwaukee home more than 40 times, sometimes resulting in police pointing guns at their heads, NBC News reports. The harassment started after he posted an innocuous remark on Twitter in 2018 saying he never found comedian Norm Macdonald funny.

Here are some recommended ways to protect yourself from swatting threats:

  • Don’t post any information in a public place that could allow someone to determine your location
  • Make social media accounts private and don’t use your full name
  • Hide your IP address using a proxy such as a Virtual Private Network (VPN)

One way swatting can also occur is through smart devices, reports Deseret News. According to the FBI, offenders will use stolen passwords to log into smart devices in people’s homes and make it seem like the victim is the one making the phone call to law enforcement. During the police response, swatters then watch through live stream footage.

To mitigate this, the FBI recommends people use complex passwords and multifactor authentication on accounts and devices. It is also recommended to avoid duplicating passwords.

If you are a victim of swatting, be sure to report it to your local police department.

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