School shooting false alarms, swatting calls put teachers, students and parents on edge

As America continues to grapple with mass shootings, another trend has authorities on high alert. Across the country, school districts and universities are experiencing an increase in false reports of school shootings and campus threats. It's called swatting and Stephanie Sy discussed the problem with Amy Klinger of the Educator's School Safety Network.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    As America continues to grapple with mass shootings, another trend has authorities on high alert.

    Across the country, school districts and universities are experiencing an increase in false reports of school shootings and campus threats.

    Stephanie Sy has our report on the growing problem and what can be done about it.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    It's known as swatting, false threats called into police and 911 that, in an age of mass shootings, triggers a cascade of responses.

    Just today, multiple colleges in Texas were targeted with these calls. And, yesterday, Illinois State Police said 21 schools had fake threats reported. The spike in these incidents is taking a toll on students and school communities.

    We spoke to three people who have experienced this firsthand.

  • Gaby Hollenback, College Student:

    I'm Gaby Hollenback. I go to the University of Pittsburgh, and my majors are environmental studies and urban studies.

    I got the text that the school was under lockdown. And so I immediately ran basically right to my dorm and headed up. And my — all my friends were in my room already, and I just sat on the floor, and I basically started crying.

  • Ananya Vinay, High School Student:

    I'm Ananya Vinay. I'm from Fresno, California, and I'm a senior at Clovis North High School.

    We were in our English class, and there was an announcement on the loudspeaker that said that there is — that we're going on lockdown, and no one knew what was going on, not even the teachers.

  • Matilda Larson, Mother:

    My name is Matilda Larson. I live in Canton, New York, and I am the mom of a 14-year-old boy in the eighth grade and a 16-year-old boy in 11th grade.

    From my cubicle, I heard another mom who also has children in the same grade as my youngest son say: "My daughter just texted me. She said the school is in lockdown."

  • Gaby Hollenback:

    Then the fire alarms on campus started saying that we were under lockdown and that we should stay inside. And I remember just, like, feeling so, like, scared in that moment.

    Then we started hearing that they couldn't find any shooter in the school or anything. So all our minds go to, oh, like, they're out in the open and we could be in — like, next.

  • Matilda Larson:

    I received a text from my youngest son who was using a friend's phone to say: "Mom, we're in lockdown."

    And so I wrote back and said: "Make sure you stay hidden. Make sure that the phone that you're using is on silent."

    I then texted my other son and said: "Are you in lockdown?"

    And he wrote: "Yes." And I said the same thing.

    And this overwhelming sense of despair and alarm, it just washed over me.

  • Gaby Hollenback:

    Once it was declared a hoax, it was — the text went out that everything was OK, it went on like any normal day, and barely anybody talked about it. It was just kind of like, OK, like, whatever.

    And I think that's what made me, like, the most angry out of everything that happened, is just going back and being like, oh, everything is OK, everything is normal. But, like, in reality, like, it's really not.

  • Ananya Vinay:

    You think it won't happen to you, but then you get — but then you get a five-minute lockdown that may just be a false alarm. But the false alarm showed you that it could really happen.

  • Matilda Larson:

    This is the second time this school year that they had gone into a lockdown, earlier in the year during the winter months.

    So being that it happened to be a second lockdown situation, you think, how could it be that another event could come out so well, where no one is hurt and that it's a situation that gets resolved very fast? So, every — so, the second time, you just think, is this the one?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You heard a range of reactions there.

    Now I want to bring in Amy Klinger, co-founder of the Educator's School Safety Network, for a closer look at these swatting calls and their impacts.

    Amy, thanks so much for joining the "NewsHour."

    Some of us will remember bomb hoaxes and such being called in when we were in school, but these calls are on a different scale, from what I understand. What is going on?

  • Amy Klinger, Educator’s School Safety Network:

    Well, we still have bomb hoaxes going on as well. So now you have added another dimension, our worst fears of an active shooter being weaponized against us, and causing an incredible level of trauma and disruption and an incredible consumption of resources.

    And your — the people you just spoke with have really encapsulated it all, the fear, the anxiety, the uncertainty, the unknowing what's actually happening. And all of that comes together, along with this incredibly rapid law enforcement response, and the need for something to be done very rapidly, while you're still unsure what's happening.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    And these are not necessarily individuals affiliated with the school.

    Again, I have read reports that this is computer-generated calls, in some cases, that technology is being leveraged to, as you say, leverage that fear of mass shootings.

  • Amy Klinger:

    Absolutely. And it's really not about of some individual or a little disgruntled kid saying something.

    This — these are attacks. These are coordinated attacks that tend to occur in clusters. They tend to happen regionally by an actor or an entity that is outside of the school that's being targeted. They really are attacks designed to undermine, create chaos, fear, anxiety, all of the things that we see are happening.

    And that's why they continue, because they're working.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I want to talk about the response that schools have to have, I guess, in response to these threats, given that mass shootings do happening this country.

    Schools regularly send out text messages to the students, to the parents, when there are threats of an active shooter in a lockdown. Almost all of us have gotten a text like this. It sounds like that alone can be very stressful for some of the people we just heard from.

    Are there clear best practices for how schools should respond to these threats, the vast majority of which we know will end up being hoaxes?

  • Amy Klinger:

    Well, I think we have to guard against a couple of things.

    Number one, we have to be proactive. We have to start talking about that, talking about, what is our protocol? What are we going to do? What's helpful? What's not helpful? What are we going to — how are we going to communicate as much information as we can?

    So we have to have sort of that proactive approach. And we also have to guard against the complacency, the boy that cried wolf, where we go, oh, it's just another one of those, oh, it's just another one of those.

    And so we have to really brush up on and really coordinate the training on the front end of things, so that people are aware of what to do, what it could be like, what we're going to do, because you have got to also build back up that trust and help people to put it in the proper perspective, that while these are front of mind, these horrific events, and they're totally unacceptable, they also are statistically rare.

    But that doesn't mean that we should not prepare for them. And so this swatting just adds another complicating layer for schools to have to deal with.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I read that a lot of these hoax calls are considered misdemeanors in places. What can be done to stop them, from a law enforcement perspective?

    I know that Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, where they have had hundreds of these threats at schools, has called on the FBI to form a task force. He wants to launch an FBI federal investigation into where the calls are coming from. Is that what is needed?

  • Amy Klinger:

    Yes, I think we have to really shift our thinking from — I know we use the word hoax because we're saying it was just not really true. But we have to shift our thinking from these as being, oh, it's just a bad joke or a threat to being, these are attacks.

    They truly are attacks. And we need to treat them as such, in terms of our investigation and in terms of our consequences, because they have really significant — a really significant impact on kids and schools. And so we have to treat them as the serious problem that they truly are.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    What is your biggest concern, Amy Klinger, if this trend continues?

  • Amy Klinger:

    Well, I think it is eclipsing the significant work that needs to be done in school safety, that needs to be all hazards, that needs to be about training, and about mental health, and about violence prevention, and relationship-building.

    And this really complex array of things that needs to happen to keep kids safe in schools has been boiled down to a singular discussion of swatting, or guns, or anti-gun, or pro-gun, or whatever that is. And we have really missed this larger picture of what we should be doing to keep kids safe. And kind of the school safety movement has been hijacked by this incredible increase in these false events.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Amy Klinger of the Educator's School Safety Network, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Amy Klinger:

    Thank you.

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