Amid a rise in swatting calls, the fabrication and fear of mass shootings collide
As many communities across the United States struggle with mass shootings, malicious actors are increasingly targeting schools with false reports of shootings, using the fear of gun violence and 911 calls to afflict terror about another potentially deadly incident, experts told ABC News.
Callers have caused confusion and delays, prompted law enforcement to expend vital resources and exposed the vulnerabilities of schools to potential future shootings. Commonly called "swatting" incidents, these instances employ technology to disguise phone calls that signal a threat, often prompting a local Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to a specific address, according to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
A Growing Threat
"Somebody just shot seven students in the bathroom," a caller told the Onondaga County, New York, 911 Dispatch Center around 10:15 a.m. on March 30. Officers from four different law enforcement agencies with long rifles and tactical gear rushed toward Westhill High School in Syracuse, New York. The call would later be deemed a hoax, but in that moment, officers believed it was the "real thing," Geddes Police Chief John Fall told ABC News.
"The hardest part about any situation like this is everyone has a little bit of information," Westhill Central School District Superintendent Stephen Dunham said to ABC News. "No one has all the information."
No student had been shot in the school's bathroom, yet parents and community members who learned of law enforcement's response feared their school might be the next target of a mass shooting.
"You could see it on people's faces, where it's like, 'I didn't know for a couple minutes if I was going to be driving to the high school to have to identify my kids' body,'" Dunham said.
On March 30 alone – the same day as the Westhill High incident – 226 schools across New York state were impacted by 36 false reports of mass shooting incidents, according to New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who has called for a full-scale investigation from the FBI of the incidents.
Just three days before the hoax at Westhill, a lone shooter killed three children and three adults at a school in Nashville, Tennessee.
Swatting calls have become common over the last decade, with criminals calling in threats on rival gamers or activists. Schools, however, have become frequent targets this year, multiple experts told ABC News. The number of swatting calls has at least doubled over the last year, according to James Turgal, the former chief information officer of the FBI and the current vice president of information security company Optiv.
Experts said swatting incidents are similar to the rise of school bomb threats in the 1990s.
"It's the best thing we have to compare it to, but the comparisons fall apart pretty quickly," Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, told ABC News.
Swatting calls attempt to mimic what a "victim" of a fabricated shooting would tell authorities, while bomb threats are commonly made from the perspective of the person who placed the fictional bomb. Canady said a person who planted a real bomb has little incentive to call in a threat to clear people from their target. At the same time, a shooting victim would try to immediately contact the police for assistance – complicating the perceived importance of these calls.
"Those two males, approximately 6 feet tall; the male said he's hiding in a stall and they were walking toward him and disconnected. He advised they had AR-15s, however, it sounded like he was trying to change his accent," according to a police scanner on April 5 about a potential shooting at Valparaiso University in Indiana.
Authorities later determined the incident posed no credible threat and no weapons found.
"Even if that dispatcher can kind of create some doubt of whether or not this is a legitimate call, there is still local law enforcement that is running to that school," Turgal told ABC News.
The exact reason for the surge in incidents is unclear, though multiple experts suggest the proliferation of accessible technology has enabled swatters. Computer programs have allowed callers to disguise their identity with a computer-generated voice, while advances in artificial intelligence have made these voices increasingly believable, according to Don Maue, director of the Center for Emerging and Innovative Media at Duquesne University.
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"The ease of which someone can hide themselves behind some aspects of technology makes it sometimes easier for the task to be done," Maue told ABC News.
Moreover, perpetrators can make their calls practically untraceable by utilizing a free and open-source software called the Tor network, or "the onion router." This network allows users to communicate anonymously and make calls that bounce between multiple IP addresses, according to Turgal.
"I could be sitting in a hotel room in Pinehurst, North Carolina, like I'm doing now, but actually utilize that onion router network to then move my signal from North Carolina to Western Europe, right to Russia, to China," he said.
For example, the call that impacted Westhill High School appeared to come from Canada, though it could have originated in Syracuse. According to Canady, the calls that target schools and universities increasingly originate from overseas.
Beyond a desire to create fear in a community, Turgal said these swatting calls might also be an international effort to expose law enforcement's vulnerabilities and fatigue first responders mentally and physically. Criminal actors could use these calls to determine weak spots in a school's response in planning a future shooting or move resources away from another target in a community, experts said.
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The Fatigue of False Alarms
With 173 mass shootings so far in 2023, psychologists are concerned the fear of these incidents can harm children's ability to comfortably socialize and grow in school spaces, which has always been associated with safety.
"Your fight or flight response comes on board. Where there's an active danger, [your] body needs to respond," school psychologist Tammy Hughes told ABC News. "And that happens prior to finding out that it's a false report or a hoax, so your body already has the physiological response – people are afraid."
University of Pittsburgh professor of psychiatry and law John Rozel said these fears can be inflamed as eyewitnesses and actors outside the impacted community begin posting about an incident on social media.
"They hear about a critical incident and then they start imagining that there's more to it," Rozel told ABC News. "I could have sworn I heard blank when they didn't actually hear blank."
Reports about these incidents also leave a lasting impression on local residents, according to Hughes.
"Even when things are found to be a hoax, there can be parts of the community that think, 'Oh, no, it actually did happen. You're just covering it up from happening, you're failing to report that there was a shooting,'" she said.
While many victims of swatting are fearful for what could have been, others are left jaded or less concerned about the threat of gun violence, experts said. Rozel expressed concern that false alarms could expose first responders and students to "alarm fatigue," where first responders or students could take swatting incidents less seriously and create vulnerabilities for the real thing.
"If the boy cries wolf too many times, people start to stop paying attention and that creates an opportunity for something even worse to happen," he said.
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