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

Published: April 11, 2023Episode #64
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This article, originally published on Jan. 23, 2023, has been updated to reflect recent swatting events on college campuses. This is an issue that clearly isn’t going away any time soon, so K-12 schools and college/university campuses must keep up-to-date with leading practices for combatting this widespread and pervasive threat.

On April 3, four Harvard University students were held at gunpoint when at least five campus police officers raided their undergraduate suite. The officers were responding to a false 911 call about an armed individual.

The students awoke to the officers banging on their suite door early Monday morning, reports The Harvard Crimson. When one of the students, Jarah Cotton, peered out of her room into the common area, she saw officers armed with assault rifles and in riot gear. Held at gunpoint, the officers instructed the suitemates to exit their rooms with their hands raised.

HUPD spokesperson Steven G. Catalano said in an interview that Harvard police were dispatched to the building after receiving a report of someone “threatening violence against occupants.” The officers searched the Leverett House suite with “negative results for an individual with a firearm or any persons acting in a suspicious manner.”

That same day, Rider University students and staff were told to shelter in place for nearly an hour after the school’s public safety office received an anonymous phone call threatening gun violence on campus. Officers determined the threat was not credible and it was deemed a “swatting event,” according to a press release from the Lawrence Township (N.J.) Police Department.

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.



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