Dozens of schools across the state have been hit with a school swatting hoax this week, forcing them into lockdown for hours at times and prompting significant police response. Homeland security expert Juliette Kayyem joined GBH’s Morning Edition co-hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel to discuss. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Jeremy Siegel: So let's start with the basics here. What exactly constitutes swatting?
Juliette Kayyem: A swatting is basically a hoax, it's sort of a complex hoax in which someone will call a school district or a police department, say that there is an active shooter, so they're sort of pretending that they're a bystander and that kids are at risk, or something bad is happening; Or that something bad will happen: a bomb has been delivered, there's a bomb in the cafeteria. This then triggers a response by the school district or the school or the police department. Kids go into lockdown. The school closes down. Parents get notified. And of course, you have a massive law enforcement presence at these areas. You can imagine the nightmare scenario because after Uvalde, but certainly because this is a real threat, you're just getting massive police presence at schools where nothing is going wrong. And that's just a recipe for harm being done even though there isn't a real threat.
Paris Alston: So, Juliette, to your point, I'm imagining the police and authorities are responding to this as if it is a real threat because no one really knows. Tell us a little bit about what that looks like and what the resources go into to do that. Is it mostly local or does it rise above that?
Kayyem: At this stage it's mostly local. At least that's what we're seeing. And I mean, that's just a great point. You know, it's not just Uvalde in which the failure to act was basically inexcusable. It is that the reaction to that now by police departments is often going to be: we're going to surge, we're going to come to the school district, whether it's local or possibly state. We're going to go to the school district because we think something's going on. And then it just takes a little while for it to de-conflict because if they call the school and say, hey, is something going on at the school, we hear that there's an active shooter, the school is unlikely to say, oh, everything's fine. Because now they're worried that something's going on in the school. So there's just this rush.
There's another factor post-Uvalde that has become a concern for law enforcement and others. Parents, now untrusting that law enforcement will do what they need to do, are also showing up at these schools to protect their kids. You can just imagine: No one knows what's going on. Lots of people, some of them with guns, are at the school district. The kids are traumatized because they're told to lock down. It's not funny. And it's a crime. Whether it's state or federal depends on the nature of what's being threatened. And yet it's prevalent because someone thinks that this is a good time for them. And something that school districts are trying to figure out is how can we better manage what these calls are so that we're not just responding every single time.
Siegel: There have also been calls in New Hampshire and Maine and in Vermont. In one instance, there were descriptions of nearly 50 Vermont state troopers swarming a building looking for a threat. Authorities there called it an act of terrorism. I mean, looking at these cases, is there any way to figure out exactly who is responsible? Whether it's a student? It's sort of hard to imagine being in the shoes of students who in some respects might be jaded with all of this. There is this rising number of shootings happening on campuses. What are the intentions of a swatter here? Is it just to cause chaos? How do you investigate all this?
Kayyem: There's no evidence that these are related, like it's the same caller. But on the other hand, this is just in the atmosphere now. This is something that people do. So in a limited number of cases, it's a known person who's trying to upset the school. And from what we know so far, it is very hard to figure out who's sending these calls because of their capacity to hide their signature in terms of the phone calls that they're making. And so a lot of these cases go unsolved. But law enforcement is trying to figure out: can they backtrack and determine who it is? But you are exactly right — the problem is that the more that these occur, the more reaction there is, then it ends up being nothing. If something were to happen, everyone will maybe think that this is another crying wolf aspect. But the traumatic effects of this on kids are just — you can't even measure it at this stage: Lock down or don't lock down? Is it real? Is it not real? We call it Generation Lockdown. These kids are living this nightmare of both the reality of school shootings and now this second curse, so to speak, which is these swatting cases.
"These kids are are living this nightmare of both the reality of school shootings and now this second curse, so to speak, which is these swatting cases."-Juliette Kayyem, homeland security expert
Alston: Juliette, I remember years ago, you were talking about how you instructed your kids in times of emergencies to run, don't be a hero, that sort of thing, to go ahead and get out of the way. But I'm curious, when you're saying that these are hoaxes and it can cause a lot of confusion for kids who are already traumatized either firsthand or vicariously, when we think about all of these incidents of school shootings and other events that have been happening, how do you talk to them about how to assess how real of a threat they may be facing when it could be a hoax?
Kayyem: Right. So this is a great question. And MSU, what happened this week is a good example. If you look at the tweets that were sent out at Michigan State University, which had an active shooter on campus, three students were killed. This is a university setting. But the first alert by the police is the traditional run, hide or fight. I think that was a preplanned tweet. They then come back just a few minutes later and say, no, no, no, everyone shelter in place because now they know what's going on. So a lot of the communication can be confusing as well. There's a movement to reassess or rethink the run, hide, fight a mantra. I think in K-through-12, it is still run and hide. You don't want these kids to engage a shooter, especially if you think of how young some of these kids are. I have kids and two of them are now out of high school. But it was always run. It was, if you can, run, unless the school tells you to lock down.
In older settings, whether it's colleges, shopping malls, as we saw yesterday, or bars, or as we saw at the Lunar New Year event — there is some evidence that engagement by brave souls, I can't say I would be one of them, but that engagement with the shooter has been helpful in minimizing the harm. If you can distract or delay a shooter, it actually ends up being very helpful. It buys time for police to arrive. So there are changes in how, depending on the setting, we're thinking about how to end these mass shootings or at least make them less horrible than they already are. I mean, I hate to say it, but, you know, three dead because of the fast response of law enforcement at MSU is somehow considered good in a country like ours where we sort of have some expectation of this of these shooting cases. I am not defending that. It is all sort of situation-dependent. And I would continue to urge kids and parents to follow the guidelines of the schools have set. The schools are pretty serious about it, even if it's a hoax, because we just don't know. And that's the legacy we've left these kids, unfortunately.