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What is 'swatting'? Why is it done and how should students, staff and parents respond to 'swatting' incidents at schools?

Pittsfield Police officers respond to Pittsfield High School

Pittsfield Police officers respond to Pittsfield High School Tuesday after being warned about danger to the students. The warning was a hoax and after investigating the school, Pittsfield police said the children were safe. 

"Swatting" is a new vocabulary word, one that really isn't welcome, but America is being forced to learn it in this painful time of gun violence in schools.

Michael G. Masters answered The Eagle's questions about what swatting is and how law enforcement responds to it.

Michael G. Masters Secure Community Network

Michael G. Masters, the national director and CEO of the Secure Community Network.

He is national director and CEO of the Secure Community Network, which safeguards Jewish communities across North America. Masters ran the Department of Homeland Security for the Chicago urban area before taking his current position in December 2017.

Phone threats at three Berkshire high schools prompt large police response, lockdowns

Secure Community Network on Wednesday released a situation report to key staff members after the wave this week of swatting incidents, hoaxes similar to those that occurred in Massachusetts and in multiple states across the country. Both public and Catholic schools were also targeted in Colorado, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Utah and Virginia.

Masters spoke to The Eagle on Wednesday. Responses have been edited for clarity.

Q: What is swatting?

A: Swatting is essentially the making of a prank phone call or a hoax phone call to 911 or emergency services in an attempt to get a dispatch from a large number of police officers or an armed response to a location. And it is characterized by being a false report or a hoax. That definition has adapted a little bit now: It also includes making calls to facilities to try to get them to call 911 because they think that there's an incident about to occur.

Q: How did it get its name?

A: The origination of the term goes back to the definition of, in law enforcement, a special weapons and tactics team or a SWAT team. And so the idea of swatting is to get a SWAT team response to a location.

Q: How do people make these calls?

A: People usually use anonymized services, whether it's Voice-over IP, or specific tools on the internet to anonymize where they're making the phone calls from or through, so it can look like they're coming from different locations around the world. They're able to make, as we have seen in the last 48 hours, multiple calls, dozens of calls, impacting dozens of institutions in multiple states in a very short time period.

Q: How long does it take to track down the perpetrators?

A: It can take many months, if ever, to identify where these calls are originating from and by whom. But the prevalence of the almost robo-style calls has been more common in the last couple years. You basically are trying to track backwards, to connect these together either through the language used or the technology used.

Q: What motivates people to engage in swatting?

A: Some are just done to cause fear or to spark a law-enforcement response to waste resources, or to tie up police resources, or to cause fear within a community. There can be malicious swatting, which is directed at specific individuals or locations, and which is designed to get a police response that may result in a confrontation where ultimately innocent people can get injured.

Q: What is the response and why does swatting pose a threat?

A: If somebody says there is a hostage-barricade situation or an assault in progress, the police are going to respond very proactively — thinking that they're facing a potentially deadly force confrontation and then going into a location — when in fact, it's a fake call that was designed to get that police response to actually injure the people at that location. These can have real-world consequences. They are dangerous for potentially innocent individuals, to whom law enforcement is responding, thinking there's a real incident, they can be dangerous for law enforcement as well.

Q: What’s the best response in the moment?

A: We've gotten more sophisticated when we have a swatting event or a bomb threat. Whereas maybe 15 or 20 years ago, the immediate reaction might have been to evacuate a facility, now we're being much more thoughtful. Are we evacuating the facility because it's a credible threat? Is it a non-credible threat?

Q: What protocols are helpful?

A: The worst time to be testing something out is in real time during an incident. We know that these calls are happening. Let's take that moment, if our school hasn't been impacted, to say, "What would we do if we were?" and test it, train it, make sure your faculty, your staff, are aware of it. And communicate that to the parents. It’s important to set expectations with our parents so they know what’s going to happen.

Q: What isn’t helpful?

A: It's often not helpful for parents to either rush to the school, or for everybody to bombard the school with phone calls. That's a natural, instinctive reaction for parents to have. We understand that. But it's important that the schools and the parents, the faculty and the staff, work together to identify the protocol, and that everyone's aware of it and trained on it. [Then] if there is an incident, whether it's real, or a hoax, the school and police have the space and ability to implement the protocol, without also worrying there's a whole bunch of people rushing to the building, and we may not know who they are, or where they're calling the building and they're tying up our personnel. We really need to be focused on making sure the kids are safe and secure and calm.

Jane Kaufman is Community Voices Editor at The Berkshire Eagle. She can be reached at jkaufman@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6125.

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