School Swatting: Why It’s So Dangerous and How to Combat It

A police chief breaks down the dangers of swatting, how it impacts communities, and lessons he’s learned from responding to false threats.

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Making or reporting a false threat that prompts an emergency response, commonly referred to as swatting, isn’t new. Years ago, the most common form of swatting within a school environment was a bomb threat, often placed by students looking to get out of a test or hoping for a long weekend. What is new is who is placing them, the nature of the threats, and their frequency.

Most swatting threats made against K-12 schools or universities are coming from individuals not associated with those campuses. For example, a series of bomb threats made against dozens of U.S. colleges this summer were proven to be hoaxes originating from Ethiopia. In November, the FBI said one juvenile was responsible for false bomb threats made against more than 50 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), houses of worship, and other faith-based and academic institutions across the country.

Although false bomb threats are still occurring at staggering rates, swatting has shifted more toward false active shooter threats (8:57).

“The large majority are gun-related or active shooter related because we live in a society right now where we have a heightened sense of the need for additional safety and a justifiable fear of an active shooter event, so people know what words will trigger a response,” Jeffrey Yarbrough, chief of the Hutto (Texas) Police Department and former chief for the Round Rock Independent School District, told Campus Safety. “People know what words will raise the height of anxiety or concern for a community or a school or law enforcement, and we’re living in a time where anything related to an active shooter event [receives] proper response from law enforcement.”

In September and October, at least 28 states reported hoax 911 calls about active shooters on school campuses. NPR estimates that nearly 200 schools were targeted during that time frame. 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.

Yarbrough says the number of swatting threats in Texas is “at a level that we haven’t seen previously,” largely due to the various means by which these threats can be communicated, including anonymous apps and social media (5:43).

“We’re seeing a lot of it come through Snapchat. They’ll send that information to other students in hopes that the information is being deleted and those students would take that information to the campus administrators, which would trigger an investigation and response with regards to standard response protocol,” he described. “We’ve gotten emails from anonymous accounts and we’ve responded to all of those situations with the same concern that we would if it was a person walking into the police department saying, ‘Hey, this incident occurred.'”

The Evolution of Law Enforcement Response to Swatting Threats

As swatting threats continue to evolve and more data is collected regarding these threats, law enforcement response has evolved as well. Yarbrough partners with the Austin Regional Intelligence Center (ARIC), a fusion center, to share information about lessons learned from swatting (4:23). ARIC tracks data such as phone calls and social media to better understand the nature of the threats.

“There are many issues we’ve had to prepare for. In law enforcement, it’s an evolving process of response, understanding and comprehension so that you can temper your tactics in a manner to where you are still providing high-quality service,” he described. “We’ve had swatting incidents in the past where someone would call from a certain area of town saying there was an active event there so that they can get all of the law enforcement resources moved to that area so they can go and commit acts in another area.”

Swatting incidents like the one Yarbrough described have significantly altered how law enforcement responds to them.

“There was a time when all law enforcement would respond if you got a threat and they would be called off only when it was determined to be a false report,” said Yarbrough. “Nowadays, you have your law enforcement officers who will stay in their sectors and you have a portion of law enforcement that will respond to the schools, making sure that if they need to go and walk the halls, they’re doing that. If they need to set up a perimeter, they’re doing that.”

If a threat is made against a school, his department’s first step is to instantly communicate the threat to the impacted school or district so they can activate their mass notification solution (13:20). Hutto officers also regularly train with school districts and their respective police departments.

“Simultaneously, we’re doing a threat credibility evaluation to determine whether or not that threat is credible. We want to find out if we’re getting multiple reports, which would increase the credibility of that threat,” Yarbrough continued. “We’re also wanting to identify who reported it so that we can have that information to determine the credibility of this event. Primarily, the goal is once you receive a call, we’re wanting to secure the perimeter of that school and make sure those facilities on that compound are secure.”

Depending on the circumstances of the threat, police may notify buildings and residents in the adjacent areas so they are able to act accordingly should it be a real threat.

With these threats being so common, Yarbrough warns of alarm fatigue among both first responders and the general public (7:10).

“The alarm fatigue component breeds complacency after a while because the assumption is that, ‘Oh, well, this is just another false alarm.’ That is something that we as a society, we as law enforcement, school safety professionals and school district leaders, have to make sure that we fight against because we can’t compromise safety for convenience,” he said. “We can’t allow complacency to be the prevailing response to any incident. We have to take those situations as if they are actual events and respond accordingly until facts and data determine otherwise.”

Here’s a breakdown of the other topics discussed in this interview:

  • The correlation between mass shootings and increased swatting threats (10:13)
  • Lessons Yarbrough has learned from responding to swatting calls (17:12)
  • How these incidents are impacting the mental health of students, staff, parents, and surrounding communities (19:07)
  • Additional suggestions for schools on how to identify false threats (21:14)
  • Measures underway to increase charges that can be brought against someone who makes a false threat (25:37)

Watch the full interview here or listen on the go on Apple or Spotify.

 


Chief Jeffrey Yarbrough is the former Round Rock, TX ISD Police Chief and current Chief of the Hutto, TX Police Department. Chief Yarbrough also serves as an advisor on the Raptor Technologies School Safety Council.

About the Author

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Amy is Campus Safety’s Senior Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy has many close relatives and friends who are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

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