More than two dozen Massachusetts schools were targeted by false reports of school shootings Tuesday.
The reports are the latest in a recent wave of so-called swatting calls targeting schools across the state — last month, more than 30 were targeted, with at least 13 schools in one day.
But what exactly are swatting calls, and should we be talking to kids about them?
What is swatting?
Swatting involves hoax calls made to 911 to illicit heavy police response to a targeted location, according to the FBI. Callers often make false claims about violent crimes, such as a shooting. Schools increasingly have become the targets of swatting.
While some may consider swatting calls a prank, Dr. Chase Samsel, a psychiatrist at Boston Children’s Hospital, said these calls can have serious consequences.
“In the most extreme of terms, it’s harassment and terrorizing kids, families and schools, saying that there’s active shooters or that someone’s getting ready to come and do something at a school and inducing panic and lockdowns and distress,” Samsel said.
How do swatting calls affect kids?
Dr. Neena McConnico, executive director of Boston Medical Center’s Child Witness to Violence Project, said seeing a large police presence in any situation can trigger anxiety and trauma responses.
“It definitely raises people’s anxiety levels,” McConnico said. “And particularly when we’re thinking about schools where for many kids is seen as a safe place for them.”
McConnico said that swatting calls have exacerbated an already-existing fear in students of school shootings, especially following the recent Nashville school shooting.
“With hearing about all of these incidences of school shootings or school violence; that’s just yet another reason for students to be fearful and not want to go to school,” McConnico said.
With recent incidents of mass shootings and swatting calls at schools, Samsel said a number of parents in the past few days have expressed concerns about their kids’ safety and whether they should take them out of school to avoid any risks.
Should parents talk to their kids about swatting calls?
McConnico said that regardless of whether or not children were put in harm by swatting calls, it’s important for parents to talk their kids about what happened and how they felt.
“For a moment, [those kids] really felt as though their well being was was in danger, and just because you learn that wasn’t an actual threat doesn’t necessarily mean that that feeling goes away,” McConnico said. “And there’s that reality of it didn’t happen this time, but it could happen next time.”
Samsel said it’s important to approach kids about the topic because of how quickly misinformation about dangerous situations spreads, which can exacerbate an individual’s fear of swatting and shootings.
“It’s best to control the narrative and to stay ahead of these things to be able to talk to kids, and for them to hear from a safe, trusted person about something that’s really scary,” Samsel said.
McConnico said parents can start the conversation by saying: “Hey, I know that you probably are aware of the recent school shooting that happened and we’re hearing more and more about violence that’s happening in schools. I just wanted to check in with you to see where you’re at and how you’re feeling about it.”
McConnico said some kids may not feel comfortable discussing their feelings immediately, but it’s still important for parents to let their children know that they are always open to talking.
“The important thing is just kind of keeping the lines of communication open,” McConnico said.
McConnico said it’s also important to reassure kids about the systems and policies put in place to keep them safe.
“We can’t tell our kids that they’re a hundred percent safe because that’s not true,” McConnico said. “But I think just trying to be as realistic as possible, while also kind of balancing out that there are systems and processes in place to help keep them safe.”
How can educators talk to their students about this?
Samsel said it’s important for schools to provide the same emotional support to students that parents might be providing to their kids, as well as being a source of information when schools encounter swatting calls.
“If someone has a swatting call and a bunch of police show up at a school and are going throughout the school, looking around ... that’s scary,” Samsel said. “People are going to rely on rumors and guessing instead of the truth if they don’t hear about it aboveboard and upfront.”
McConnico adds that educators should also remind students of the consequences of swatting calls and how they can hurt the mental health of their peers.
“Education is really important here, and talking about the severity of it,” McConnico said. “It’s just about basic tolerance for others and empathy building.”
Ashley Soebroto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ashsoebroto.