At 1:15 pm on September 15, a man who identified himself as Tom Gomez called Sangamon County Central Dispatch in Illinois to report that two gunmen had shot a dozen students at Springfield High School. According to call audio obtained by WIRED, the man was specific. The caller, breathing heavily, told dispatchers that he was locked inside a math classroom with other students and that the two men, both dressed in blue pants and green jackets, were killing students in the adjacent classroom: room 219.
Within five minutes, Springfield Police were at the high school’s second floor, descending on the room where they were told a mass murder had occurred. The problem is that, according to police records, Springfield High doesn’t have a room 219. In fact, there was no shooting at all.
The dangerous hoax call was one of more than 90 false reports of active shooter incidents at US schools made during the second half of September, WIRED found. From Lincoln High in Dallas, Texas, to Lincoln High in Des Moines, Iowa; McArthur High in Hollywood, Florida, to Hollywood High in Los Angeles, these false reports are part of a disturbing spree of recent swatting incidents that crisscross the United States. While experts who study violence at schools say that false reports of shootings inspire copycats, state and local law enforcement officials say that many of these swatting attacks seem to stem from a single person or group.
Through local news reports, police records, and interviews with state and local officials, WIRED compiled a list of 92 false reports of school shooting incidents in 16 states that took place from September 13 to 30. Many of the false reports we tracked align with data collected by the Educator’s School Safety Network. While several impacted states experienced only one such call, others recorded a staggering number, including at least eight in Ohio, 15 in Virginia, and 17 in Minnesota during that three-week period.
Of the false reports WIRED tracked, at least 32 appear to be linked to a single group or perpetrator. Of the 60 remaining calls, many were made within minutes of one another. Most police departments refused to provide us with records or did not respond to multiple requests to confirm details about the contents of the calls, however, so the number of calls linked to a single swatting campaign may be much higher.
Superintendent Drew Evans of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a statewide fusion center tracking these incidents, says that in each of the 17 calls in his state, the caller had a distinct accent and that the calls were made using the same voice over IP technology. “There’s a lot of different technology that could make it appear to be a single person, but all the indications we have are that it’s either one person or a single entity,” Evans says.
In audio of the call to Springfield dispatch, the caller indeed had a discernible accent. In a detailed report of the call for service, the dispatcher noted that the caller was a “FOREIGN SPEAKING MALE” and that the caller was “SPEAKING VERY FAST WITH MIDDLE EASTERN ACCENT.” Audio of two calls from Ohio that WIRED obtained appear to be of the same person as the Springfield call’s “Tom Gomez,” and the caller describes the fake shooting with nearly identical details about the incident. In total, law enforcement officials from six states—Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Ohio, and Virginia—all described receiving similar calls. In each call, officials confirmed that a man with a heavy accent called from an out-of-state number and reported a mass-casualty attack. In some instances the caller reported that the shooting occurred in a specific room number that does not exist and included details about the color of the pants, shirts, and jackets of the alleged shooters.
Swatting—a prank call in which someone makes a false report to emergency services in order to get a SWAT team dispatched to a target location—has been around for more than a decade. (The US Department of Justice has used the term “swatting” since at least 2007.) While no one has been seriously injured in the recent surge of swatting attacks at schools, these pranks can be deadly. In 2017, Wichita police shot and killed a 28-year-old man at his front door while responding to a false report. (In what appears to be a coincidence, Wichita’s North High School was targeted in this recent spree.)
Bolton High School in Alexandria, Louisiana, was one of at least 16 Louisiana schools targeted in September. Lieutenant Lane Windham of the Alexandria Police Department says the explanation is obvious. “I don’t think this is some prank. It’s terrorism,” he says. “When someone’s trying to terrorize the teachers, parents, all the students, and the community, what else can you call it?”
School swatting attacks appear to be preying on a familiar American fear that not only are students vulnerable to violence in their classrooms, but that law enforcement is powerless to stop it, sometimes spurring parents to try to do so themselves. This nightmare scenario became all too real during the mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, in late May, where parents rescued their own children as police failed to act. Meanwhile, the threat of school shootings remains all too real. According to research from Everytown USA, a nonprofit that tracks school shootings, the 2021–2022 school year saw nearly quadruple the average number of gunfire incidents since 2013.