The shadow of gun violence follows Ashley Castillo everywhere. When she was a first grader in South Central Los Angeles in 2012, an armed attacker attempted to break into her school. That first lockdown stuck with her—not only because of the memorable shock, but because the threat is always there.
Now an 18-year-old senior in high school, Castillo has had to face the shadow countless times. Of course, there are the repeated active-shooter drills. Then she witnessed a shooting while walking home last summer. A few months later, a false report about a gunman hit her high school in Los Angeles. As the familiar process of lockdown began—books closing, doors locking, students hiding—she could feel the same anxiety welling up. Could this be the time I don’t make it home from school? she wondered.
American students are living through an astronomical rise in gun violence. There have been 163 gun incidents at American schools so far in 2023—that’s seven times a week that a gun has been brandished or fired, or a bullet has hit school property, according to the K–12 School Shooting Database. And tragically, gun deaths among children and teens increased by 50 percent between 2019 and 2021, per a new analysis from Pew Research Center.
Amid this troubling rise in attacks for America’s kids is an increase in a lesser-known phenomenon: school-shooting hoaxes.
These false alarms are also known as “swatting,” a harassment technique that involves making a fake threat of a major violent crime to law enforcement. The goal is to trigger an armed police response from a SWAT team or similar unit, which is how the practice got its name. It originated in hacker and gamer circles—in fact, the earliest known incidents were perpetrated by teen boy gamers angered by rejection from girl gamers, and involved targeting their homes.
While swatting used to be largely a one-off phenomenon, it has recently spread to schools and become more sophisticated, affecting entire school districts and making it hard for law enforcement to track where the calls are coming from, says Sarah Burd-Sharps, senior director of research at Everytown for Gun Safety.
While the FBI doesn’t track swatting statistics, a simple Google search that includes a specific town or state plus “school shooting hoax” often brings up local news reports that show how common it is becoming. In just the past few months, swatting attacks hit more than two dozen schools in Massachusetts, multiple schools across 14 districts in Rhode Island, four schools in Pennsylvania, over a dozen schools in Utah, and three dozen schools across New York State. Each instance prompted a full response, including lockdowns, the arrival of armed police, and in some cases, searches of classrooms and students.
“Swatting is a false alarm, but it has to trigger a real response because of our gun violence crisis,” Burd-Sharps says. “It creates fear for the entire school community. It terrifies students and parents. And it also diverts resources of law enforcement and first responders from real incidents.”
It’s unclear what’s behind the recent rise. Generally speaking, the goal is harassment or disruption. It’s likely that more swatting incidents are focused on schools because of how many real school shootings there are in the U.S. Perpetrators know law enforcement will take the calls seriously. But experts face difficulties in determining the identity of attackers or their motives.
The calls related to recent swatting incidents in New York, Utah, and Rhode Island appear to have originated from outside the United States, though the exact locations are not known. Because technology allows for perpetrators to set up spoof phone lines from anywhere, it’s also possible Google Voice or a similar tool was used within the U.S. to set up an international phone line and make auto calls. The FBI recently told the AP that it is monitoring the issue.
“These incidents weaponize the fear we have about school shootings,” Burd-Sharps says. “They’re part of our epidemic.”
Essentially, while it’s becoming more common for adolescents to experience multiple incidents of real gun violence throughout their lives, it’s even more likely that kids will experience several swatting attacks, or a combination of a real shooting and swatting attacks, due to the recent rise in these false alarms, says Burd-Sharps.
Though they’re not talked about or reported on as often in national media, swatting events can still be extremely stressful—even traumatizing—for those experiencing them. “It’s really important to point out that people don’t know it’s a hoax while it’s happening,” says Paige Lowe, PhD, program director of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at Utah Valley University.
A recent swatting attack that targeted 13 schools in the Salt Lake City area this spring affected a number of Lowe’s therapy clients. It’s not just the recent attack, but the constant stream of shooting news on top of hoaxes hitting close to home that is affecting her clients. “They’re having so much anxiety. Then there’s burnout from being so anxious,” Lowe says. “They just want to zone out and watch TV or otherwise disengage. It’s making it hard for them to find joy in daily life.”
For many, experiencing a swatting incident is not the first or last time they will experience a brush with gun violence.
“My generation has spent our childhood practicing how to stay alive when the shooting starts,” Castillo says. “Even when the alarms are false, there’s nothing fake about the fear and panic that comes with them.”
The dread of yet another incident infects Castillo’s everyday life. Recently, while she was standing in the movie theater concessions line, the power went out, triggering the theater’s entrance gate to lower and lock Castillo and her friends inside. “Immediately that fear began to rush in,” she says. Even normal stuff, like a bus backfiring or a balloon popping, can send her into fight-or-flight mode.
“The psychological impact has been devastating,” Burd-Sharps adds. “Seeing armed police and having to evacuate with hands up is absolutely triggering for all children, but in particular it’s even worse for children who already struggle with violence in their communities.”
The same day that six people, including three children, were murdered at a school in Nashville in late March, Alexandra Griffin, 42, was reeling from a swatting incident in her children’s school district in Barrington, Rhode Island.
“My child’s school wasn’t even directly threatened, but I still got so scared because I was like, ‘Wait, why aren’t the police checking at the middle school or at the elementary school?’” Griffin recalls. “I live with this tremendous anxiety all the time. I don’t know if they’re going to come home at the end of the day.”
Experts are still studying the mental health effects of this constant stream of fear. One 2015 review of 49 studies found clear increases in fear and psychological symptoms in those who experience mass shootings directly or indirectly, but more long-term research is needed.
One risk is an increase in what’s known as complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). CPTSD is a newer diagnosis, and some experts disagree on whether it’s a diagnosis distinct from PTSD. But generally, CPTSD is associated with ongoing, complex traumatic experiences that build up over time.
Complex trauma arises when someone is living through an ongoing sense of fear or helplessness, or multiple instances of the initial stressor, Lowe says. When that painful experience recurs again and again—whether it’s coming from news about yet another active shooter, repeated real-life brushes with gun violence, or hoaxes—you don’t have a chance to recover. You don’t get a chance to process your fear, so it stays with you unless you seek help.
A singular traumatic event, like experiencing one shooting or even one swatting incident, can cause troubling effects, like flashbacks or difficulty moving on, but the effects of complex trauma seem to be more pervasive.
For example, those who experience complex trauma tend to have problems coping in a wide variety of stress-inducing situations. “Complex trauma causes a constant sense of anxiety,” Lowe says. “It’s also like pushing it underneath a rug. Every time there’s another incident, the anxiety just gets bigger and bigger.”
“You get some imposter syndrome in these cases, where people think, Do I have the right to be upset?” Lowe says. “But just because it’s a hoax doesn’t mean the experience of the fear isn’t valid. The trauma is real.”
Parents and adults have the added task of also making sure to create space for kids’ emotions surrounding gun violence or its ripple effects, be it a planned lockdown drill or a swatting hoax.
Lowe advises broaching the subject but letting your child lead the conversation. You can start by simply asking what they think about what happened at school. “If they don’t want to talk yet, that’s okay—give them space,” she says. “When they’re ready, be sure to listen and reflect. You can’t solve the problem, but you can validate their feelings by saying, ‘I hear you. I see you. I’m with you.’”
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the anxiety, seek professional support from a therapist. Especially if you (or your child) seem unable to enjoy normal activities or are experiencing flashbacks or nightmares, or other symptoms, like trouble managing emotions in stressful situations, talk therapy may be key in helping you process your experiences so you can feel better. Medications may also be beneficial. “Connecting with other parents, building that community of support, can also be hugely helpful,” Lowe says.
Finally, taking action by getting involved with gun safety organizations is another way to fight feelings of powerlessness. “The bigger solution is gun safety laws and gun safety practices that can make it so we’re not having this lasting impact on an entire generation of young people,” Burd-Sharps says. “There is a whole movement of young people who are really using their voices. That is the hopeful news.”
For Castillo, joining the gun violence prevention movement has been a way to process her trauma.
Her first leadership role was planning a Students Demand Action march in May 2022 after the Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde, Texas. At the mic, she couldn’t help but break down in tears as she spoke about her experiences and advocated for a better future.
“I was scared that I’d seem weak, but it actually empowered everyone who watched me to see a survivor like myself go through such lengths to create change,” she says. “Being in this movement made me go from hopeless to hopeful.”2023-06-05T12:13:36Z dg43tfdfdgfd