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Fake calls cause real terror in the classroom

Uncontrolled and unpredictable, swatting that evokes mass gun violence is a chaos maker


By Kim Palmiero

False reports of active shooters caused ripples of terror in communities across the country in recent weeks — and there’s no clear way to stop it.  

Unidentifiable chaos-makers reported threats or active shooters to schools, prompting thousands of kids to crouch quietly as armed law enforcement ran through classrooms to check for assailants.  

“From my perspective, this is a form of terrorism,” former FBI intelligence analyst Jennifer Doebler told NewsNation.

In the wake of a mass shooting at Covenant School in Nashville that left six people dead, schools have seen a wave of hoax calls evoking gun violence, otherwise known as “swatting.”

Thousands of children in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Salt Lake City, and Massachusetts last week were evacuated from class following such reports. Four are in the Pittsburgh region. The FBI is investigating. 

But overall law enforcement has been powerless to do anything but react; the FBI doesn’t track swatting incidents, either. Maryland may be the only state to drill down on it: The Legislature created a state task force to study swatting last year.

Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, put a renewed focus on gun laws. U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, whose district includes Pittsburgh, gave an impassioned speech from the House floor following the false reports in the region last week.

“Imagine… you’re a student at Central Catholic (a private, all-boys high school in Pittsburgh). You’ve gone through active shooter drills, and you saw the news on Monday and heard about every school shooting prior, and today, you get a text that a gunman has entered your school,” she said.

“So thankfully, today, it wasn’t dead children back home in Pittsburgh. It was ‘just’ traumatized children. It does not have to be this way. And it wouldn’t be this way,” she said.

Lee is cosponsoring the Assault Weapons Ban of 2023. The bill would make it “unlawful to  import, sell, manufacture, transfer, or possess … a semiautomatic assault weapon.”

It’s a variation on the national assault weapons ban signed into law by former President Bill Clinton, which expired in 2004. 

In the Pittsburgh area, it was clear after a few minutes the calls were false, but the experience was still traumatizing.

Lindsey Barrowman, whose daughter is a junior at Oakland Catholic hugged a fellow mom under the steeple of St. Paul Cathedral, where parents gathered to await word on picking up students after they were evacuated. 

She said, “It’s hard to talk about it because you hope it will never happen.” 

“But I always tell her to be aware of her surroundings,” Barrowman said. 

Nancy Wilmer carried an iPad and kept her daughter on FaceTime as she paced outside the church. 

“I just need to see her, to know she’s OK,” she said. 

Her other daughter does not carry a phone in her school, which worries her immensely, she said because there would not easily be a way to communicate if there were an emergency.

Oakland Catholic canceled classes Thursday and Friday, extending spring break, and offered counseling to students Thursday morning.

The FBI is investigating the Pittsburgh incidents. 

The problem isn’t new — but it’s become more common, according to the Anti-Defamation League

In November, an FBI official told The Associated Press that a spate of false threats had come from outside the country.

But it’s clear there’s hundreds of cases a year and some use caller ID spoofing to disguise their phone numbers.  ADL says that many targets belong to marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ+ people.

Kim Palmiero is CEO & Editor-in-Chief of Postindustrial Media. Reach her at

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