Schools across the nation have recently been targeted with prank calls falsely reporting shootings, leading to serious law enforcement responses, lockdowns and chaos.
Officials say that a multitude of schools in Vermont, Michigan and California were “swatted” in recent days when police received false threat reports from pranksters. School officials were often unaware of the calls until the police suddenly showed up, in some cases forcefully barging into their buildings. For instance, in Saginaw Township, Michigan, police rammed a cruiser through the front gate of the Nouvel Catholic Central High School in response to a hoax call on February 7.
In the call, the caller claimed that two students had been shot. However, after police arrived, it became clear it was a fake.
“It was determined the call was most likely a hoax within the first few minutes of officers being on scene,” police told WNEM. “However, officers continued to conduct a systematic search of the building to verify there were no injured students or staff.”
At least seven school districts in Michigan and five in California reported false shooting reports on February 7. On February 8, Vermont schools reported 21 separate prank calls.
The calls led to dozens of SWAT responses, and caused chaos and disruption to school activities. The incidents also caused nearby but unaffected schools to lock down as a precaution.
Local, state, and federal law enforcement officials said they are investigating to determine if the calls were coordinated. In Vermont, Commissioner of Public Safety Jennifer Morrison said that was likely to be the case, as the calls all shared similar messages.
The FBI also announced that it is launching investigations with local agencies in the states, as it did in September after similar hoaxes took place across several states and affected a multitude of schools.
The Ingham County Sheriff’s Office in Michigan, which responded to false reports of shots fired at Okemos High School, is currently working with the FBI.
“It’s not a joke and, unfortunately, we live in an era where we see what happens when this is real,” FBI Special Agent David Porter said. “The drills aren’t a joke. The responses aren’t a joke. The resources that are spent on something like this aren’t a joke. When you make false reports like this, it’s dangerous and it’s a crime.”
Okemos Public Schools Superintendent John Hood said that even though the reports were false, the events were still harmful.
“These events are traumatic for our students and our staff and our families,” Hood said. “We’re gonna be providing some mental health support for our students, K-12, in our buildings, including Edgewood Early Childhood Center. We’ll have an opportunity for staff to come and meet with mental health counselors if they so choose, as well as our students and families to meet also with mental health professionals to give them the support they might need to process the trauma from today.”
“This was no mere hoax or victimless prank,” Ingham County Prosecutor John Dewane added in a statement. “For many students and their families, the terror was all too real.”
“Swatting” has become an increasingly popular method of pranking law enforcement after the rash of school shootings seen in recent years.
“Swatting is the false reporting of an ongoing emergency or threat of violence intended to prompt an immediate and or large response from law enforcement and other first responders,” Commissioner Morrison explained.
In October, NPR and Wired magazine traced dozens of school swatting calls back to a service called TextNow, which allows internet users around the world to make anonymous calls using U.S. numbers. In a memo obtained from the FBI, Wired found that 80 calls came from a single number linked to a service owned by the Ethiopian government.
Vermont State Police Colonel Matthew Birmingham confirmed the foreign source of many of the calls.
“A lot of these swatting events … do originate historically from foreign countries, and they are difficult to track at times,” Birmingham said. “But we’re working closely with our federal partners at the FBI and we will do everything in our power to identify who was responsible for these calls.”
Morrison added that the calls may have violated terrorism laws.
“If the assumption that these are swatting calls [is] true, this is terrorism to invoke fear and chaos in a community. So I can think of no other motivation than some depraved person or entity perpetrates these calls to upset communities and create havoc,” Morrison said.
To better respond to hoax calls and swatting incidents, schools are working to put measures in place so that there is as little disruption as possible. Preparations involve increasing communications with parents through texting and social media, and coordinating with school staff and law enforcement on safety procedures.
“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,” Ephrata Superintendent Tim Payne said.
Depending on the state, intentionally misleading or deceiving a law enforcement agency is a felony crime and could lead to jail time.