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Schools across the country are being targeted with hoax calls about active shooters

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Over the last three weeks, schools across the U.S. have been targeted by a new wave of hoax calls. Somebody calls the school or local dispatch to say an active shooter is on the campus and that some people have already been shot. The school is then put on lockdown. Police swarm the scene. And in some cases, panicked parents rush to the location. As NPR domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef has found, there seems to be a pattern. And she joins us now. Odette, thanks so much for being with us.

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIMON: How many schools have received these calls recently? And what have you learned about them?

YOUSEF: Well, Scott, mostly looking at local news reports, I've counted up to 114 calls that may fall into this category. That's just within the last three weeks. And it covers 19 states and the District of Columbia. You know, these schools have been mostly high schools, but there are some middle and elementary schools. And it's a mix of public and private schools. I just want to play a bit of audio from some of the calls that we obtained through open records requests. And bear in mind these are clips from three separate calls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER #1: Emporia police dispatcher (inaudible). How can I help you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello. There is an active in the high school, Greensville High School. Hello. Nineteen have got injured at Greensville High School. There is an active shooter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER #2: St. Cloud Police Department.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Active shooter (inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER #2: Your phone is cutting in and out. I can't hear you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There is an active shooter at Apollo High School.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER #3: Springfield Dispatch.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hello. There is an active shooter at Central High School. There is an active shooter at Central High School.

YOUSEF: So chilling to listen to. You know, the first of those calls, Scott, was in Virginia on the 19. The next one was two days later in Minnesota. And that last one was two days after that in Ohio. And as you can hear, the narrative script is nearly identical. All three calls sound like the same, a grown man with a heavy accent. And a number of other details about these calls seem to fit a pattern.

SIMON: And why are the calls called swatting, Odette?

YOUSEF: Swatting is a term used to describe hoax calls made to law enforcement that claim that violence is underway or about to occur. And it's intended to set off a huge and immediate law enforcement deployment, including SWAT teams - hence the term - to that location. You know, this can be really dangerous. You know, police are showing up hot with guns drawn. You know, they may be breaking down doors. And what's really concerning here is that swatting kind of originated in spaces with extremely online communities, including live gaming communities as a prank. It's also something that extremists do to intimidate and harass their perceived ideological enemies. But this seems to be something else entirely.

SIMON: And, Odette, what have you been able to learn from investigators and local authorities?

YOUSEF: Well, the FBI is saying just that it's aware of these incidents and working with law enforcement at several levels. But, Scott, the more intriguing information has come from some local news reports quoting authorities who said that there are indications that these calls may be connected to overseas. You know, these calls were coming from internet phone numbers or VoIP. And some reports have said that the IP addresses linked to the calls appear to originate in Africa. One Minnesota police chief was quoted saying the calls were coming specifically from Ethiopia. But there's a lot of reason to question this. Here's Drew Evans of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

DREW EVANS: What we don't know is, you know, whether or not overseas could have been used as a mask. In other words, they could have routed this. And you can route VoIP calls through different countries. We don't know if that occurred, but there's certainly a connection to other countries from the United States.

YOUSEF: But on the other hand, the specificity of how these calls were placed also suggests a level of local knowledge that one wouldn't really expect from an overseas actor. You know, Scott, I think regardless of whether this is a domestic or foreign campaign, the big question is still there. And that question is, why?

SIMON: Well, we'll let you get back to your fine reporting. NPR domestic extremism correspondent Odette Yousef, thanks so much.

YOUSEF: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.
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