Since April 28, the Princeton Public Schools have been the victim of several “swatting” calls, forcing multiple schools to lock down and resulting in an evacuation from PHS on September 25.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, swatting is the act of fooling an emergency service, such as the police, into responding to a false threat or incident, deriving its name from police SWAT teams that typically respond to such calls. Sometimes described as terrorism, swatting can cause disruptions, waste resources, and distract from real emergencies.
As such, a new bill has been proposed in the New Jersey legislature that would raise the punishment for the caller from a prison sentence of five to ten years, a fine of up to $150,000, or both. According to the FBI, charges for swatting calls in the past have included “conspiracy to retaliate against a witness, victim or informant” and “conspiracy to commit access device fraud and unauthorized access of a protected computer.”
“This latest in a series of similar incidents at hospitals, malls, and school illustrates the need to increase penalties for making false public alarms,” said State Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, one of the sponsors of the proposal, to mycentraljersey.com.
The first computer-generated call received by a PPS school was on April 28 at Riverside Elementary School. This incident was followed by a prerecorded call to John Witherspoon Middle School on May 12, from a woman who claimed she had a weapon and threatened to harm children. This same message was received at Johnson Park Elementary School on May 19. On May 21, PHS received a call saying that there was a shooter in the building, prompting the school to go into a lockdown during third period. Several more calls followed during the remaining weeks of the school year, and with the start of a new school year, the district has received about a dozen calls total.
The calls were either prerecorded or computer-generated and could not be traced because the information travels through the Internet instead of through a phone line. “[The call] was described as a [computer-generated] voice that comes in through a computer, not through a regular phone,” said Principal Gary Snyder.
At a community meeting at John Witherspoon Middle School on May 19, Princeton Chief of Police Nick Sutter said, “Our investigation has basically shown that we are among several communities in New Jersey and around the nation that have actually received these threats likely from the same party.”
On the morning of September 25, PHS received a bomb threat, a day after a bomb threat to Riverside Elementary School, prompting the school to go into a shelter-in-place during fifth period while K-9 units searched the parking lot, football field, and bleachers. After remaining in their classes for the first part of break, students and teachers were then told to evacuate to the turf as K-9 units searched the school.
Students and teachers spent the rest of the school day on the turf. “[The Pope] was in New York that day, so a lot of police and a lot of police dogs were on other assignments, so they either had to come from a distance or weren’t able to come at all. So, it took a little bit of time,” Snyder said. Around 1:30 p.m., the police gave an “all clear” and students returned to the building in time for a 1:49 p.m. dismissal due to the homecoming pep rally.
For the next few days, staff struggled to get all their classes back on track. “It affected the classes because the afternoon classes were cancelled,” said economics teacher Lisa Bergman. “I think that it’s just a bother … I believe that it is a hoax … [but] I understand we have to kind of go through the steps to make sure that it isn’t a real risk.”
Despite the disruption, the process of the evacuation went smoothly. “We were quite efficient in exiting the building,” said Orchestra Director Robert Loughran. “There was enough leadership at [the PHS] field that we all knew where to go … to take attendance down there, make sure everyone was accounted for.”
About a week later, on September 30, John Witherspoon received a similar threat and evacuated to the PAC.
While the threats so far have been empty and have lacked real credibility, they still impact the Princeton community. “It’s disruptive. When we evacuated, we were out for … two hours of class,” Snyder said. “Most share a feeling of one, frustration, two, anxiety, and some worry about what it is and who is behind it and why they are doing it … It does make [the school] feel less safe.”
Nonetheless, some students do not believe that the calls pose any real threat and have confidence in the local authorities. “I guess I just feel safer when there are police around the school, and I don’t worry too much, even if we do get a swat call, because I know that our police are competent,” said Eric Li ’18.
Although the disturbance from these incidents has been highly impactful in the school district, all the schools continue to take each threat seriously. However, there is some concern that an increasing influx of swatting incidents could cause the school to react less seriously in the future. “What I truly worry about is that we’re getting desensitized, and that if something real ever does happen … we won’t take it as serious as we should,” said chemistry teacher Robert Corell.
Princeton has not been the only New Jersey area receiving swatting calls. The University Medical Center of Princeton and Ocean County Mall as well as schools in Lakewood, Ridgewood, Edison, and Holmdel have also received threatening calls with a similar pre-recorded message.
There has been progress in seeking out the instigators of these calls. In Connecticut, 22-year-old Matthew Tollis was sentenced to over one year of prison time and three hundred hours of community service on October 6, after being charged with six swatting calls to various schools. Tollis placed calls to Boston University, Harvard University, Sandy Hook Elementary School, and a Pennsylvania school district. Upon his arrest, many have found reassurance that law enforcement has been actively seeking out these swatting incident perpetrators.
In response to a growing number of calls to Princeton, state and federal authorities are now helping local forces in the search for the perpetrators. At another community meeting on June 17, Sutter said, “We have the best cyber experts available in the country working on this right now … Everything is a lead we can investigate.”
According to an email sent by Superintendent Steve Cochrane, “The district is researching changes to our phone system that would filter calls from phones with no or blocked ID.”
Although the school might want to avoid the disruption and anxiety tied to the reaction to a swatting call, filtering such calls demands the consideration of safety. “What if a swatting call is real?” said Michael Shen ’18. “Then we wouldn’t know and we wouldn’t evacuate.”
In addition to this potential strategy, the district continues to seek the best way to respond to every incident as the investigation continues. “Each situation can be a little bit different,” Snyder said. “But if we are presented with a threat, then we’ll have to act accordingly.”
Image Credit: The Tower