Managing False Active Assailant Threats to Schools

In one of Aesop’s Fables, a boy falsely alerts the villagers that a wolf is attacking the sheep. After making several more false alarms, an actual wolf appears. The boy’s real cry for help goes ignored and the wolf devours the sheep. As schools grapple with active assailants across the United States, they are also dealing with false reports of active assailants. The FBI calls these false reports “swatting,” and the term also includes false reports of mass casualties or other violence with the purpose of calling in a massive police response to a particular location. 

In addition to the anxiety that it can cause among students, staff, and parents, swatting can undermine the school community’s trust in future emergency alerts, and tie up critical first responder resources for other legitimate calls.

For law enforcement, tracking the origin of these fake emergency calls is nearly impossible because data encryption makes it easy for the perpetrators to conceal their identity. Further complicating the identification and prosecution of offenders is that the calls may be coming from other countries. 

In preparing for potential threats, the district should have a plan in place to: (1) verify if the threat is real as quickly as possible; (2) determine how the district will handle communication to parents and media following a false report; and (3) have support mechanisms in place to address any fear, anxiety, or trauma caused by the false report. 

As these false alarms increase, it is critical that schools remain prepared for a real attack, unlike the villagers responding to the boy who cried wolf one too many times. According to Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), “we still have to respond as if they’re actually happening. We can’t allow ourselves to go there to think oh, this is another one of those fake calls. That’s the time when it won’t be.”