Across North Carolina, school ‘swatting’ hoaxes waste time and create terror
When police descended on Ardrey Kell High last week, it was an example of what state officials say is a troubling trend: False reports of school shootings and other threats are on the rise. Hoaxes may not be deadly, but they’re far from harmless.
When North Carolina state Superintendent Catherine Truitt opened a conference on back-to-school safety this summer, the first thing she mentioned was an increase in certain challenges: “First and foremost what I think of when I think of that uptick is hoaxes and swatting.”
Swatting means making false reports of school violence, designed to draw heavy police response, or SWAT teams, prepared to face an active shooter.
“These incidents drain staff and resources and have the ability to spread uncontrollably, usually with social media,” Truitt said.
Just before noon on Friday, Ardrey Kell High in south Charlotte got just such a call.
“It was a call of active violence about a subject being inside, armed, dressed in black, with an automatic weapon, shooting everyone,” Major J.D. Thomas of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department said.
The school, which has about 3,500 students, went into lockdown and police mobilized. Thomas says dispatchers suspected the report was false. It was not local and a very similar call came shortly afterward saying there was a shooter at Community House MIddle School, just across the street from Ardrey Kell.
After the fact, Thomas described it as “a prank call that is matching things that we’ve seen in surrounding counties and surrounding states.”
But the police couldn’t take a chance. They swarmed to Ardrey Kell with weapons drawn as students texted their parents.
Jeff Bundy, who works about two miles from Ardrey Kell in Ballantyne, first got a text from his son saying the school was on lockdown. That can be a drill or a precaution when something happens nearby. But when his son said they were barricading themselves in classrooms, Bundy hit the road.
“And as I was driving there, a half dozen, maybe eight or 10 police cars went screaming past me, sirens blaring. I could see the helicopter coming in and starting to circle around where I knew the school was,” he recalls.
Dozens of parents had already arrived at the scene, he says, with cars pulled off at the roadside and some people in tears.
At 12:19 p.m., after students had been texting for almost 20 minutes, Principal Jamie Brooks sent a message to families saying there was possibly an armed person on campus.
“Collectively, our hearts were just sinking,” Bundy said.
Bundy said a school security staffer tried to keep parents from running toward the school, but some ignored him. The officer, he said, warned them that "The police aren’t going to know who you are. You aren’t helping the situation."
At about 12:45 p.m., a police officer told the gathered parents that they’d swept the building and the threat was apparently a hoax.
“But then a school-bus-sized vehicle with its sirens blaring drives past us. And on the side of this bus it says Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department Mass Casualty Response Unit,” Bundy said. “And our hearts kind of sank again because we didn’t have our kids yet.”
In the end, students at Ardrey Kell and Community House were safe. They were dismissed early, having lost half a day of class time. The emotional toll is impossible to calculate. Bundy says it was horrible for adults who feared for their children, “but I think for a learning environment where kids are carrying that stress and that anxiety constantly, that can’t be good for their mental health and subsequently can’t be good for the future of our country.”
Who’s doing it?
Filing a false threat report is a felony, and Major Thomas says CMPD “and our federal partners and us are going to find that person and make sure they are charged.”
But false bomb threats and shooting reports that don’t originate locally have been regular occurrences at schools across the country over the past year. Technology makes it easy to disguise the origin of calls, and so far no one has been charged with Friday’s threats.
When students make threats it can be a different matter. Last week Cabarrus County Schools got three false reports of violence. A call saying someone had a gun at Roberta Road Middle School was traced to a juvenile, who is now facing charges. No one has been identified as responsible for two threats at J.M. Robinson High School.
Cabarrus County saw another spurt of false threats about this time last year. At that time, Superintendent John Kopicki talked about the drain not just on school resources but “all the resources in your community that had to respond in terms of police officers, EMS personnel, fire personnel, detectives, bomb squad dogs — there’s a lot of resources and a lot of financial capital that is spent when these situations occur.”
What can be done?
At the back-to-school safety summit, Karen Fairley of the North Carolina Center for Safer Schools said the Department of Public Instruction works with the State Bureau of Investigation’s Fusion Center to gather information on threats. Fusion Centers were created after the Sept. 11 terror attacks to bring together federal, state and local law enforcement to anticipate and deal with threats to homeland security.
According to news reports Fusion Centers have gotten involved with efforts to identify potential school shooters, but it’s not clear what they’re doing in connection with false threats. Neither the State Bureau of Investigation nor the Nation Fusion Center Association responded immediately to requests for information.
Meanwhile, Fairley says her group works with school district communication offices and parent advisory groups to urge families not to pass along unverified information about threats on social media.
“It becomes complex, people panic, and so part of hoaxing and the problems as it relates to hoaxing is just the panic,” she said.
For instance, as the Ardrey Kell situation was unfolding, families connected on a school parents’ Facebook page. Parents shared in real time what their kids were texting them, including things that turned out to be false, such as reports that a student had pulled a gun in the cafeteria and that there had been a shooting.
“What we suggest they do is they contact their schools and they contact their local law enforcement and that they don’t take it on themselves to share on social media,” Fairley said.
The false report at Ardrey Kell was a crime, but police say the response was a success. Officers arrived quickly. School administrators and teachers reacted as they’d been trained, and students and parents for the most part stayed calm. No one was physically injured. But for those who believed that the nation’s epidemic of school shootings had come to their door, the invisible damage is real.