Campus Safety

False Alarms: The Harmful Impact of School Shooting Swatting and Hoaxes

By Mike Lahiff

With gun-related violence in schools continuing to rise, parents, teachers and students are increasingly concerned that these horrifying events could occur close to home. Studies have found that one-third of parents are either extremely or very worried that a school shooting will occur at their child’s school, and 70 percent of teachers say the threat of gun-related violence affects their school environment.

Unfortunately, amidst real school shootings, a new threat is emerging that is proving to be just as dangerous: shooting hoaxes, or “swatting.” According to David Riedman, Founder of the K–12 School Shooting Database, out of 130,000 schools in the U.S., a conservative estimate based on limited public reporting at the state and county level is that 100,000 schools in 2022 have experienced some sort of active shooter hoax, tip, or related threat.

Bad actors are taking advantage of the heightened sense of fear and panic in school communities by creating false alarms and reporting fake shooting threats. False reports made through social media, text messages, phone calls or other means of communication are intended to create fear and ultimately get SWAT teams or other local law enforcement agencies involved.

While in some cases, individuals may participate in school shooting hoaxes as a prank or for attention, in others, the goal may be to cause panic or disrupt schools and communities. Regardless of the motive, school shooting hoaxes can have serious consequences that mimic those of a real school shooting. Genuine active shooter incidents incite fear and chaos; disrupt the school environment; use considerable resources and tax dollars; and result in post-event trauma, injury, and death. When it comes to school shooting hoaxes, all of these are also true—including the threat of injury and death.

While the risk of fatalities is obviously lower in hoax scenarios, the possibility is very real. Law enforcement come in strong and armed in response to any claim of a school shooting, ready to confront what they believe to be a real active shooter. This high level of tension puts people in danger and increases the potential for violence, including serious injury or death. In 2017, for example, an innocent man was shot and killed in Wichita, Kan., as a result of a swatting prank. A more recent shooting hoax in San Antonio, Texas, resulted in injury as concerned parents swarmed the scene to get inside the school and save their children from a nonexistent active shooter threat.

Hoaxes also consume significant resources. When law enforcement receives a shooting threat, they are forced to divert their attention and manpower from important tasks to respond. This strains resources and can lead to delays in their response time for other emergencies. Similarly, school shooting hoaxes waste school resources and disrupt the learning environment, sometimes shutting down the school for several hours. When a false report is made, schools are often placed in lockdown or evacuated, and local businesses can be affected as well, interfering with the daily lives of the entire community. After the incident, additional time is needed to investigate and resolve the situation, leading to further school closures and disruptions.

Even though there isn’t a real shooting threat during a hoax, the affected parties aren’t aware that their lives aren’t actually in danger, creating immense fear and panic as they are put into lockdown and must wait for the situation to be resolved. This waiting game can be traumatic for students and faculty, as well as parents who are worried about the safety of their loved ones. For those who have experienced a school shooting firsthand or have a personal connection to someone who has, this fear can be even more intense. In the wake of false reports, a sense of distrust is also created, because individuals can no longer trust the information they are receiving regarding their safety. If a real shooting were to occur, school communities may be more skeptical of the threat and may not cooperate with the necessary safety procedures in place.

While shooting hoaxes are difficult to prevent, schools can help alleviate the resulting terror and chaos if certain proactive security measures are in place. For example, cutting-edge security technologies can help verify whether the threat is legitimate by identifying whether there are illegally brandished guns on campus. With trusted, thoroughly-vetted security measures in place, schools can provide peace of mind to faculty, students, and parents in the event of a shooting threat, real or fake.

School shooting hoaxes are immensely harmful and dangerous acts that can have serious negative consequences for all those involved. It is important that individuals refrain from exaggerating or making false shooting claims, and that we work together to find ways to address the issue of gun-related violence in our schools and communities in a meaningful and effective way.

Mike Lahiff is the CEO of ZeroEyes.