Law enforcement can’t keep up with school shooting hoax technology

Utah Department of Public Safety official warns the state’s new School Security Task Force that school shooting hoaxes are not uncommon nationally.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023.

Following a swarm of false school shooting reports that targeted multiple Utah schools, state lawmakers are looking for ways to improve school safety, especially when it comes to threats and hoaxes.

To start the conversation on how to best help schools, officials from the Department of Public Safety briefed members of Utah’s School Security Task Force Tuesday during the group’s first interim committee hearing.

The task force, a new legislative committee created by Rep. Ryan Wilcox, R-Ogden and signed into law during this year’s annual session, aims to implement statewide training and standards surrounding school security. The 18-person group includes lawmakers, education officials and representatives from law enforcement agencies.

“The speed, diversity and access to global technologies, or communication technologies, have outpaced the ability for law enforcement to investigate and enforce certain laws,” said Jacob Broadhead, a DPS representative warned task force members. “But we also recognize that there are mitigation opportunities that exist that can influence and lessen the impact on critical infrastructure and the public.”

On March 29, Utah dispatchers received 11 emergency calls reporting active shooters at several schools across Utah — all of which were found to be fake. Utah was among several states that experienced a surge in hoax school shooting calls in the days following a deadly shooting at a Nashville Christian school.

“The March 29 incident was an anomaly within Utah, but it was not an anomaly nationally,” Broadhead said.

Broadhead informed committee members that calls began at 9:17 a.m. and continued until 11:45 a.m. There was an hour break between 10-11 a.m. during which time officials believe the caller was targeting another state.

“It took some time to evaluate and understand that there were more schools still being targeted even after we were notified,” Broadhead explained. “We sent out an alert to help prevent over-mitigation and this did help with a couple of other counties down the line where their school resource officers were actively patrolling the school making sure nothing was happening.”

However, panic had already spread among families and the public. Around noon that day, Ogden City School District posted a tweet to inform and console families.

“Ogden high school has been the victim of a hoax related to school violence,” the tweet said. “Repeat: this is a hoax. No students have been harmed. Ogden police are at the school and are clearing the building per protocol as a precaution. Multiple schools have been the victim of this hoax today.”

The FBI’s investigation remains ongoing, Broadhead said, but authorities have determined the source of the calls.

The suspect, a male with a thick accent, claimed to be calling from a school bathroom, but used a free voice over internet protocol (VoIP) number in an attempt to remain anonymous, Broadhead said.

“They also utilized VPNs and hacked unsecured U.S. routers,” he said.

In the unclassified brief to the task force, the Department of Public Safety recommended several mitigation measures, including intervention within the communications sector to prevent misuse of exploited technology and providing more resources to public safety dispatch centers to evaluate phone numbers.

“This is the beginning of a wider conversation, where we don’t have to call each other into a formal task force to have the conversations we need to going forward,” Wilcox said during Tuesday’s briefing. “This is a kickoff of a wider cultural shift and understanding from each of our perspectives about what we can leverage and what we can do.”

Patty Norman, deputy superintendent of student achievement for the Utah State Board of Education and member of the task force, echoed Wilcox.

“I think that the number one thing right now when it comes to schools is not how well their students are doing academically, it’s whether they’re safe,” Norman said. “And if we think about what that looks like for kids at the end of the school year or going back, we can have that sense of safety. And not just a sense of safety, but make it a reality because we are all on the same page and we have these protocols and processes in place.”

Norman said the Utah State Board of Education will soon be meeting with the schools that experienced the hoax to learn how each handled the situation and gather information on best practices.