A recent string of prank threats against Dunwoody schools leading to evacuations and lockdowns have parents on edge and concerned about their children’s safety. Local police and school officials say everything is being done to keep students safe as they work with federal authorities to track down the offenders.
Approximately 70 people gathered Dec. 20 at Dunwoody City Hall for a community forum to learn about how local police and school officials are dealing with what’s known as “swatting” – when prank calls, emails or social media posts threatening violence are made to try to lure a large emergency response, such as a SWAT team.
“Our reaction needs to be measured and appropriate,” Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan said. “[The offenders] are seeking an elevated reaction and feed off the media attention.”
In November, Dunwoody, Vanderlyn, Austin and Kingsley elementary schools were temporarily locked down after receiving threats. Police said none of the threats were credible and the internet address used to make the threats was traced back to the U.K.
Then last week, more threats were made against Dunwoody, Vanderlyn and Chesnut elementary schools, Dunwoody High School and Montgomery Elementary School in Brookhaven. There were also threats the same day made at other schools in metro Atlanta. Local police said it appeared the same internet address used in the November threats were being used in the new round of prank threats.
Grogan said in the past month, there have been 17 prank threats in Dunwoody targeting public and private schools as well as an email threat against Perimeter Mall and even three threats made to the Dunwoody Police Department.
Det. Sgt. Patrick Krieg explained the emails and phone calls appear to come from one group that is not just targeting Dunwoody, but also metro Atlanta and approximately 200 sites across the country. Dunwoody Police and DeKalb County Schools’ Department of Public Safety are working with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the FBI and U.K. law enforcement to find the suspects.
“These offenders are a well organized group,” Krieg said.
No incident called or emailed in has resulted in an actual threat. “But it is absolutely disruptive to all of you,” he said.
Several parents complained of what they said was a lack of consistency in receiving information from school administrators. Some said their frightened child texted them before they knew there was a threat. Others said they learned about a bomb threat on Facebook.
“My son honestly felt like he was going to die,” one mother said. “He was crying. It was so scary for them, so scary for us.”
Region I Superintendent Sherry Johnson, whose region includes Dunwoody and Brookhaven, explained school administrators do not want to create anxiety where it is not needed. To do that, school officials follow a specific protocol to first ensure students are safe. The principal then walks the school to look for suspicious items or activity.
DeKalb Schools has its own police department, and they are immediately called to help the principal assess if there is a credible threat before any decision is made to inform parents, Johnson said.
When asked why students weren’t automatically evacuated when there was a bomb threat, for example, DeKalb Schools Public Safety Director Bradley Gober said doing so is not necessarily safe. Mandating a mass exodus of students could funnel students into a “kill zone” where they are vulnerable to attack, he said.
DeKalb Schools police and Dunwoody Police knew fairly quickly last week’s threats were not credible because they were coming from the same or similar internet address as the other threats, Gober added.
“We’re treating all threats seriously, but with a measured response,” he said.
Dunwoody and DeKalb Schools are in unchartered territory with these kinds of “swatting” incidents that have gained popularity in the past few years, Krieg said. Reviews are being made to how the school district responds, including what is the best way to keep parents informed while also not creating a public panic, Johnson said.
Several parents asked about the trauma children are experiencing due to the constant threats that force lockdowns at various levels, from requiring students to remain in their classroom or take to in the trailers to younger students being told to hide in their cubbies.
“This is trauma for our children,” one mother said. “This is leaving a mark on our children.”
Johnson explained the school districts provides counseling services and teachers also work with students to calm fears.
Gober said DeKalb Schools works closely with Dunwoody Police and other local law enforcement. “We are doing everything we can to keep your children safe,” he said.
Many parents asked how they could help to hire a school resource officer to be stationed at every school in Dunwoody. Right now, schools have part-time officers who patrol other schools but also respond to emergencies as needed.
Johnson said that is a human resources issues. Any measures taken in Dunwoody would also have to be done district wide to ensure the school district is treating all students fairly. “It would have to be feasible for everyone,” she said. “We have got to be equitable.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the Parkland, Fla. high school shooter pulled a fire alarm to draw students out of the school to then shoot them. A fire alarm went off accidentally, according to police.
This story has been also been updated with more discussion from the meeting.