It was a cold, overcast Tuesday, with temperatures below freezing, as students and teachers arrived at Newbridge Road Elementary School in North Bellmore. But the holiday break was still fresh in many minds, and many had renewed energy to get a good jump on their studies in 2024.
But then, just before 11:30 a.m., the world of the 330 or so students was turned upside down. Heavily armed officers from the Nassau County Police Department swarmed the campus, which was immediately put in lockdown — no one allowed in or out.
Someone had called 911, reporting a man with a gun and possible shots fired at the school. With safety in the forefront of their minds, police raced to the school and conducted an investigation.
Fortunately, there was no shooter. But unfortunately, finding yourself fleeing for shelter, scared that your life may be in danger, can be traumatic in its own right. To the point that the FBI began formally tracking these so-called “swatting” incidents last summer.
The Oxford dictionary defines “swatting” as a “prank call to emergency services in an attempt to bring about the dispatch of a large number of armed police officers to a particular address.” Many law enforcement agencies go as far as calling it criminal harassment.
But swatting is really much more than that. It’s domestic terrorism, and the students and teachers at Newbridge Road Elementary are hardly alone when it comes to being victimized.
There were 446 swatting incidents reported at schools across the country during the 2022-23 academic year, according to the Educator’s School Safety Network, comprising 64 percent of all incidents reported at schools. Actual shooting were just 8 percent of that total, while all other calls made up the other 28 percent.
That means that on a typical school day nationwide, at least two campuses are targeted by swatting.
Last February, a string of schools in Michigan were hit with swatting attacks, pulling law enforcement resources away from where they were needed and creating chaos in educational institutions where none existed. Jessica Borelli, a clinical psychologist from the University of California-Irvine, told WLNS-TV, in Lansing, that the emotional impact of swatting — especially on children — can’t be ignored.
“Everyone in this situation has strong reactions, but it sends a very important message to talk to your children,” Borelli said. “It tells them it’s OK to talk about these things. That there’s a space to talk about these things. And their parents are people they can talk to about these things.”
For many of these students, this could be their first time ever directly dealing with police officers — and likely could plant seeds of fear when it comes to law enforcement, instead of seeing them as a force of protection.
That’s why, just a few days after the swatting incident at Newbridge Road, NCPD Commissioner Patrick Ryder hosted an impromptu “Police Interactive Day” at the school.
Students had a chance to become acquainted with the county police force, including the K-9 dogs as well as the horses from the mounted unit. A number of officers were there as well, in uniform, armed with smiles and support.
The department had no obligation to do this — they were only doing their jobs. But it wasn’t something they did because they had to. Ryder and his team of those who serve and protect did this because they wanted to. And it was important to make sure everyone on campus knew the police are there to protect all of us from danger.
It was good thinking — and no surprise when it comes to Ryder, who has made a career of putting people first.
Stopping swatting may not be so easy. Some cities have put together databases to which people can add their address if they feel they could be targeted. And a number of states have passed anti-swatting laws — typically charging it as a felony if there are injuries. But no federal law exists, and many observers say there needs to be one, as well as more mental health resources made available, because tough laws on their own may not be enough to stop it.
This can’t be a problem just left to the states. Swatting incidents have been on the rise since the early 2000s, and it’s expected to get worse before it gets better. If we don’t do something about it soon, what happened at Newbridge Road could very well become a common occurrence in our schools.