My 7th grader hid in her dark science classroom for two hours, huddled together with her friends. Several of them were crying. She was doing her best to console them.
She said she heard slamming doors and running footsteps on the floor above. She visualized kids fleeing in terror. She wasn’t supposed to use her cell phone, but she covertly texted me. “I don’t think it’s a drill. We’ve been locked down for a really long time.”
Eventually, she asked me to come get her. I told her everything would be fine. Internally, I thought it would probably be fine, but I still had a kernel of fear. Externally, I used my best calming language to assure her it was okay. Lockdowns happen sometimes, and they’re usually just out of precaution. This was an unusually long one.
The next text I got was that she heard someone had a gun. She begged me to come get her. “I’m scared. I love you so much. Tell Dad I love him.” Suddenly, things weren’t okay. Without a second thought, I beelined to her school’s parking lot, muttering mantras of optimism the whole way there. I parked, and from inside my car, I looked up the two flights of stairs to the windows of her eerily black classroom. I stared and listened.
It’s every teacher’s nightmare. It’s every parent’s nightmare. It’s certainly on every student’s mind. And it seems to be a monthly occurrence.
The Rise in Active Shooter Threats
Gun violence and school shooter scenarios, whether real headlines or false threats, are more and more commonplace. A study of school safety revealed that school shootings in 2020-21 are at the highest they’ve been in the last 20 years in the US, according to the National Center for Education Statistics “Report on Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2021.”
Our collective emotions are already raw from numerous mass homicides over the years in schools: Uvalde, Parkland, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Sandy Hook, and Columbine, to name a few. Now we have to be aware of the concept of “swatting” that has entered our lexicon and schools.
Swatting is becoming an unfortunate trend at schools , but it originated in the video gaming community. It’s when someone calls in an anonymous fake threat, often from an untraceable VPN or overseas phone number, that someone has a gun or is on a killing spree in a school or other location. Police show up, or the SWAT team shows up if the swatter gets their way. There is general mayhem, and the swatter gets their kicks from the pandemonium—and sometimes worse—that they’ve instigated.
A particularly infamous case of swatting was in 2017 when an online gamer in Los Angeles, California, and his accomplice in Cincinnati, Ohio, targeted someone over an online conflict that arose while playing Call of Duty. An innocent 28-year-old victim in Wichita, Kansas was killed.
One More Thing to Worry About
Educators have enormous responsibilities. We have to—and want to—teach interesting, interactive, and academically rigorous lessons with a compassionate and inclusive lens. We strive to support students with a range of lived experiences, developmental skill levels, and family circumstances in overcrowded and underfunded classrooms.
We are used to tending to our students’ needs that go beyond the purely educational domain: deep cleaning our rooms, buying supplies that are lacking, overseeing behavior management plans, referring students for concerns about housing or food and clothing, making mental health referrals, helping students resolve conflicts, and more. Protecting our students from the real or imagined threat of violence feels like just too much.
Lockdown versus Lockout
It turns out that there was a miscommunication at my daughter’s middle school. The police called the nearby schools to put them on Lockdown, but we later found out that they meant Lockout. Lockdown is when a threat is inside the school, and students are expected to hide out in their shuttered classrooms. Lockout is when the threat is outside the school, and students can go about their business inside the school but not go outside or let anyone in.
An armed robber had held up a nearby jewelry shop and was on the lam. The middle school administration and staff followed the protocol for responding to an active gun-toting individual in the building. Eventually, the memo got back to the school that there was no threat inside, and the kids were free to limp through the rest of the day. The parents breathed a sigh of relief with gratitude for their kids’ extended time on the planet. After my daughter explained the situation and said she was okay, I left the school parking lot and went about my day. We were shaken up for a long time afterward. It’s still a psychological scar.
How Can We Address This With Our Students?
What can educators do about swatting? Law enforcement personnel are figuring out how to weed out credible from unlikely reports. Information technologists are trying to share swatting information on databases and work with the police. People are realizing the need to better protect their personal information, like addresses and passwords. Schools are following emergency response protocols and practicing active shooter drills.
Meanwhile, teachers can do what teachers do: turn this into a learning opportunity. It’s tragic, but, societal problems can be excellent fodder for improving critical thinking skills, research acumen, creative expression, and socio-emotional growth. The topic of swatting and violence in schools and the community is no exception; it can become the focus of a number of instructional lessons and activities.
Here are just a few ideas for lessons, activities, tasks, or projects. Teachers can have students:
· research and write persuasive essays on gun control, cybersecurity, internet trolls, school safety measures, etc.
· engage in a social studies lesson on the 1st and 2nd amendment—Is trolling freedom of speech? Should we limit gun access?
· interview each other on experiences with being cyberbullied, harassed, or retaliated against in online games or social media
· use math skills to analyze and display data on classmates’ experiences that have been surveyed
· act as judges or jurors of real cases of swatting episodes, school violence, criminal penalties, etc.
· create art projects such as collages, poems, dioramas, ceramics, etc. depicting their feelings and thoughts on school violence or threats
· do socioemotional learning or health activities such as understanding stress and proven ways to destress (e.g., mediation, mindfulness, cognitive behavioral techniques, etc.)
· promote community-building activities such as field trips, volunteer work, guest speakers, school clubs, and activism
All of these activities offer students opportunities to share honestly, build community, and practice listening to diverse perspectives. The content of a teacher’s lessons can’t singlehandedly solve violence and anger, but it can increase student awareness and understanding of the complexities at play. An intentional effort to bring heterogeneous students together can reduce feelings of alienation in students. It also may help youngsters practice flexible thinking rather than fixed thinking. Research shows that feelings of peer rejection are a common thread in perpetrators of school violence. Anything that educators do to improve relationships and shared understanding among peers can go a long way toward helping students feel included and heard.
The Antidote to Violence and Fear
No matter how teachers tackle the threat of violence in our communities, an overt theme must run alongside the instruction. We must emphasize inclusivity and empathy and keep in mind the principles of trauma-informed care. These lessons can be strengthened through interactive activities, small group work, and offering multiple experiences and perspectives.
For example, teachers might do a Get One-Give One activity where students trade their thoughts on an article or video on school violence. The teacher can provide students with sentence starters that promote multiple perspectives, such as “In my opinion…” or “What I’ve noticed is…” or “I see your point, but in my experience…” In this way, teachers model that it’s okay to have different perspectives and that we are all informed by different lived experiences and world views.
At its root, the inability to understand and accept multiple realities, not to mention the lack of tools for emotional regulation, could arguably be the underlying “smoking gun” of most violent or sociopathic acts. And what teachers do best, in case anyone doubts it, is to encourage discussion among students.
So, what can educators do to respond to swatting? Give space for dialogue. Talking, listening, processing, sharing, teaching, and learning from each other. Short of better legislation, there is no better antidote to violence and fear than open dialogue.
Megan Taylor Stephens is an educator, speech-language pathologist, writer, linguist, mom, traveler, and seeker of knowledge and adventure. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, two teenagers, dog, and cat. Check out her blog at https://hunkerdownthoughts.wordpress.com or her writing at https://medium.com/@mtaylorstephens.
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