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While the active-shooter calls were a hoax, the stress was real. How can adults help children cope?

Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
Parents gather at Central Catholic High School in Oakland after what turned out to be a hoax report of an active shooter on Wednesday, March 29.

Mental health experts are encouraging adults to continue checking in for the next few days with students who were affected by the string of false reports of school shootings on Wednesday.

“You’re looking for if they’re off,” said Tammy Hughes, a Duquesne University professor of education and school psychologist. “If they’re having trouble eating, or they’re having trouble sleeping [or] concentrating, compared to how they typically are.”

On Wednesday morning in Pittsburgh, police responded to reports of active shooters in two private schools in Oakland — Central Catholic High School and Oakland Catholic High School. North of the city in Beaver County, police responded to similar threats directed at the Hopewell Area School District. State police in Fayette County also investigated a threat involving Laurel Highlands High School near Uniontown.

Public safety officials also responded to threats against schools in at least three other Pennsylvania counties on Wednesday, as well as a rash of threats and false reports in other states in recent weeks.

The calls were hoaxes, according to police. But people who were affected by the calls and the response to them still could be dealing with heightened stress and anxiety.

Hughes said she encourages families to have open, honest, and age-appropriate conversations with their kids after checking in with them to assess their well-being. For elementary school students, stick to messages of safety, she advised.

“[Reassure] them that school is a safe place for them," she said. "So you would focus on things like, 'Look how quickly the police got there, look at how we had a plan. We knew exactly what to do. We’re here to keep you safe,'” she said.

Conversations with middle- and high-schoolers should center on possibility versus probability, Hughes said.

“The likelihood of this happening to you is very, very low. The likelihood of actually being killed in an active-shooter situation at school is very low. And so you want to talk with them about that and then invite them in,” she said.

These conversations are especially important as mental health needs continue to increase among some groups of students. The increase started before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the isolation that accompanied it exacerbated those problems. Now one more stressful event could trigger a need for more students, experts said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released its bi-annual Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey. The CDC began monitoring well-being in 1991. According to the latest report, the data gathered by the agency indicates that “teen girls are confronting the highest levels of sexual violence, sadness, and hopelessness they have ever reported [in the survey].”

The CDC surveyed students in 2021. The data collected shows that almost half of LGBTQ+ students reported seriously considering suicide.

Hughes said the city itself will be traumatized as well by the false active-shooter reports this week.

The thinking, she said, is that the closer a person is to a traumatizing event, the more intense the response. Several campuses in Oakland alone were locked down in response to the calls involving Central Catholic and Oakland Catholic. Students at Pittsburgh Allderdice 6-12 in nearby Squirrel Hill also could be feeling the effects of those lockdowns. And just as students’ feelings of safety sometimes come from their schools, adults are connected to the cities in which they live, and they feel the impact of events that affect those cities, she noted.

“You can think about it like a ripple effect — like when you throw a rock in a pond,” she said. “People from Pittsburgh, living wherever they live, are going to be thinking, ‘Oh, my town, my house, I can see that in my mind’. So I think the impact happens to lots of people.”

Once adults have cared for themselves, they can help kids move on by getting back to routines and working on grounding techniques such as deep breathing, Hughes said.

“[Those techniques include] helping them to get back to feeling safe so they can get back to school and get back to their routines that they do. [For] the kids that are having more and more trouble, then counselors, psychologists, and social workers are going to work to do more direct services with kids,” she said.

One way to help them stick to a routine is to talk with students about social media habits. Constantly scrolling while police are investigating the source or sources of the false reports is unhelpful for students, Hughes said.

“What we need to do is orient ourselves to the present, orient ourselves to where we are now, to moving beyond and making sure that’s not a present experience,” she said.

The schools in Pittsburgh and elsewhere in Pennsylvania were the latest to be targeted in a spate of recent threats and false reports of shooters at schools and colleges across the country, which have raised concerns among law enforcement and elected leaders.

One day earlier, nearly 30 Massachusetts schools received fake threats as part of the so-called "swatting." School officials are already on edge amid a backdrop of deadly school shootings, the latest on Monday at a Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee.

What is swatting?

Hundreds of cases of swatting occur annually, with some using caller ID spoofing to disguise their number. The goal is to get authorities, particularly a SWAT team, to respond to an address.

An FBI official said in November that investigators believe the wave of false threats focused on schools may be coming from outside of the country.

Officials said at that time that they had identified calls to about 250 colleges, 100 high schools and several junior high schools just since early June falsely reporting explosive devices being planted at the schools or saying that a shooting was imminent.

The FBI said in a statement Thursday that the agency was monitoring the situation as the swatting cases continued to wreak havoc at schools.

"While we have no information to indicate a specific and credible threat, we will continue to work with our local, state, and federal law enforcement partners to gather, share, and act upon threat information as it comes to our attention," the statement said.

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Where are swatting calls happening?

Few regions of the country have been spared from such calls and the disruptions they cause.

The false calls Wednesday in Pennsylvania led to lockdowns or evacuations in several counties, according to state police. Law enforcement had to take each one seriously no matter how dubious it seemed.

For example, Pittsburgh police searched every room at Central Catholic, even after getting word within a minute that a report of people being hurt inside wasn't true, said Thomas Stangrecki, the interim police chief.

"We treated it as a real incident," he said.

At one Utah school, a social media post sought to reassure families: "Repeat: This is a hoax. No students have been harmed."

In Iowa, so many schools were targeted earlier this month that Gov. Kim Reynolds complained at a news conference about the toll it was taking to confirm the terror-inducing calls are fake.

"It's what no governor, it's what no parent or anybody — superintendent, teachers, kids — want to hear," Reynolds said. "And we're grateful and just so thankful that is what it was."

In Minnesota, the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension issued a warning last month after fake calls forced eight schools into lockdown over two days.

Do fake threats hinder response to real shootings?

Authorities are grappling with the false alarms in a country where mass shooters have killed hundreds of people throughout history. Shooters have attacked in places such as stores, theaters and workplaces, but it is in schools and colleges where the carnage reverberates perhaps most keenly.

At U.S. schools and colleges, 175 people have been killed in 15 mass shootings that resulted in the deaths of four or more people, not including the perpetrator — from 1999's Columbine High School massacre to Monday's shooting in Nashville. That's according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University, in addition to other AP reporting.

Do even false threats pose a risk?

Such calls have proven dangerous and even outright deadly.

In 2017, a police officer in Wichita, Kansas, shot and killed a man while responding to a hoax emergency call. Just this month, the city agreed to pay $5 million to settle a lawsuit, with the money going to the two children of 28-year-old Andrew Finch.

The hoax call that led to his death began as a feud between two online gamers. One of the gamers recruited Tyler Barriss to "swat" the other gamer. But the address used was old, leading police to Finch, who was not involved in the dispute or playing the video game.

Barriss was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison, while the other two gamers were sentenced to 15- and 18-month terms.

Police in Maryland also shot a 20-year-old Maryland man in the face with rubber bullets after a fake hostage situation was reported at his home.

The FBI in Pittsburgh nodded to the risk, noting in a statement about the school threat cases that it "takes swatting very seriously because it puts innocent people at risk."

Heather Hollingsworth, Peter Smith, Ron Todt, Marc Levy and Lindsay Whitehurst — all of The Associated Press — contributed to this report.