What is ‘swatting’? The ‘prank’ terrorising schools and baffling police
Jenna Kochenauer was heading to lunch with colleagues when a police car sped past her.
“Then I saw a second one heading in that direction and I thought, huh, I wonder what’s going on,” she says.
“I reached over and turned on my police scanner, which I carry with me, and I started hearing about a possible shooting at the school that my kids go to”.
Jenna said she didn’t panic straight away but instead just focused on finding out if her children were safe.
Kennewick police department, in Washington state, had received a call about an active shooter at Southridge High School, which Jenna’s children attend.
There were gunshots, the caller said, and a man wearing all black and carrying a rifle was on the premises.
The school was quickly placed in a lockdown. Nobody could enter or leave. Police arrived within minutes.
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Jenna’s youngest son was sheltering in a Spanish classroom. The teacher closed the blinds, barricaded the door and tried to keep the students calm as police swept through the school in search of the gunman.
But there never was a shooter. The call to the police was fake.
And Southridge High is not the only school in the US where this has happened.
What is swatting?
‘Swatting’ is when a person calls the police, pretending to report a crime, only for officers to turn up with no emergency in sight.
The term was first used by the FBI in 2008 and stems from the highly trained SWAT teams that often attend serious crimes like school shootings. The phenomenon is not distinct to the US. The UK has also recorded its share of swatting incidents, notably Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts who woke up to armed police at her door after a fake report of a gunman nearby.
It became a popular prank or harassment tactic amongst online communities, often in a way to escalate arguments, and occasionally with deadly consequences. In 2017, Andrew Finch from Kansas was shot dead at this home by police after a swatting prank between gamers went wrong.
While sometimes ending tragically, they are often one-off incidents, targeting an individual because of a grievance or some other motive.
The spree targeting US schools is being conducted on a huge scale and seems to be without a clear pattern or motivation.
Swatting calls have targeted a majority of US states
Schools have occasionally been swatted by students playing a prank.
But the latest spree, which started in the US in September 2022, has been so coordinated and affected so many states that the FBI has deemed it worthy of investigation.
“It’s pretty bizarre,” says Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), which provides training to law enforcement officers based in schools.
“We’ve been used to dealing with [bomb threats] and schools have gotten pretty good at it. This phenomenon of calling in an active shooter event is quite new.”
NASRO estimates this spree has so far affected 40 states, a figure that is based on based on their tracking of local news coverage.
And some of these hoaxes are even happening on the same day. On 14 September 2022, at least two schools in Texas were sent into panic after calls reported active shooters. By the end of the week, schools in Kansas, California, Illinois and Missouri had all experienced the same.
Since then, dozens of schools have been targeted, many of them being swatted within hours of each other.
In the case of Southridge High, three other high schools in the area also went into lockdown after similar calls, and eight schools in nearby Montana were forced to do the same.
“It’s your worst day, right? Those types of calls, mass shooting. We train for them, and we’re prepared for them, but we hope they never come,” says Christian Walters, commander at the Kennewick Police Department.
He tells Sky News that 24 similar “incidents” were recorded within an hour of the call in a “coordinated effort” along the West Coast, ranging from California to Alaska.
Why are schools being swatted?
“It’s not just kids making prank phone calls,” says James Turgal, a former FBI assistant director who worked in its information and technology branch.
“If you listen, and I listened to the actual caller, it’s clearly an adult who’s doing this,” he tells Sky News.
“What’s the motivation? Why would somebody do this? Are they just trying to terrorise people? Are they being paid to do it?”
Turgal, now vice president of cyber risk and strategy at Optiv Security, says the caller seemed calm, despite the terrifying situation they were supposed to be in.
“You could tell it was staged,” he says.
Turgal served in the FBI for 21 years and still finds these calls baffling and sinister.
“Somebody could be utilising this technique to do the swatting calls because they’re sitting back and looking at how fast [the police] actually respond. What is the number of officers that respond? How do they do it? But that possibility doesn’t make a lot of sense given the randomness of the states.”
There doesn’t seem to be a specific state or school district the caller is trying to gather information on.
Hoax calls ‘are like putting gasoline on the fire’
While the incidents only last a few hours, the impact on the students, staff and parents caught up in them can be long-lasting.
“We’re already dealing, worldwide, with a lot of mental health issues, especially among adolescents. This is a bit like putting gasoline on the fire,” says Mo Canady, a former police lieutenant.
Canady’s organisation, NASRO, issued guidance to schools in September to deal with swatting, including being aware of the needs of vulnerable students who may find the ordeal more stressful.
The police and firefighters attending to these hoax calls also experience real emotional trauma.
“This takes a tremendous toll on officers who think they’re walking into what could be the most horrific thing they’ve ever seen in their careers,” Canady says.
Plus, these callouts are a huge drain on resources, pulling in police, firefighters and paramedics from local and state level, and leaving other areas vulnerable to crime.
Schools and communities remain defiant
After a period of quiet over January, this week multiple schools across Michigan, Vermont and California were the latest victims of the swatting calls.
Vermont State Police said the calls are reported to have come from “VOIP phone numbers or potentially spoofed 802 numbers” and appear to be part of an “ongoing nationwide hoax”.
VoIP numbers are real phone numbers but they operate over the internet, and can be used to hide the caller’s location.
The calls were an “act of terrorism”, according to Vermont Governor Phil Scott in a statement.
The FBI told Sky News it is urging the public to stay vigilant of any suspicious behaviour.
While the motive behind the calls is a mystery, the drain on resources and emotional impact is a real issues local communities must grapple with.
Sanford High in Maine is another school to have been rocked by a hoax call. A week after the incident, students wrote an article for their online newspaper, the Spartan Times, titled ‘November 15 wasn’t a hoax to us’, referring to the day SWAT teams filled their school hunting for a shooter and students barricaded themselves inside classrooms.
“To us it was real,” it reads, “to us, our lives were in danger”.
The piece ends with a defiant statement: “We are not broken. Our community will continue to come together and thrive in times of need.”
It seems clear the US will continue to be unsettled by these random attacks, but the schools, and the services that protect them, are determined not to be defeated.