MIDDLETOWN—Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney announced new legislation that would reclassify swatting as an act of domestic terrorism and create an FBI task force to combat it.
Speaking at a press conference at Maple Hill Elementary School on Mar. 4, he said this would make available the resources needed to combat a national problem that has hit the Middletown school district the worst in the state, if not the nation.
“How you label something really matters,” he said. “If this is treated as an act of domestic terrorism, which I think all of us agree it is, then it will be resourced properly at the agency level and the technology level.”
Swatting is a term that refers to any prank call that falsely reports an emergency—such as a bomb threat—that draws S.W.A.T. (Special Weapons and Tactics) teams or other first responders to a scene. The pranksters often use call-masking technology or hack someone’s number to avoid being caught.
Swatting is currently classified as a kind of false report, and while Maloney said he supports increasing penalties for the offense, his goal in changing the classification is to provide more resources to catch perpetrators, not to impose stricter punishments.
Since last June, there have been 13 instances in the Enlarged City School District of Middletown, and each time this happens, the school and law enforcement have had to respond as if they were real, locking down the school for up to 3.5 hours.
Maloney said an FBI task force dedicated to swatting, in concert with other Joint Terrorism Task Forces that are “well-resourced and well-equipped to deal with these types of threats,” would make tracking these calls a lot easier.
The bill, called the Stop Swatting in Our Schools (SSOS) Act, will be introduced when Congress reconvenes. Maloney said he is not worried about getting sponsorship for it in the Senate.
The main problem with these swatting calls is that, under current regulations, they cannot easily be traced by local officials because of the privacy the callers use and the schools’ classification.
The district has been receiving the threats from restricted calling party numbers that hide the number and location of the caller, something that is protected under national privacy laws.
Superintendent of the Enlarged City School District of Middletown, Ken Eastwood, said if schools were put in the same boat as government or law enforcement agencies, they would have access to the billing data associated with those numbers instantly, privacy laws or not.
Maloney and New York Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer are working on securing a waiver that would exempt the district from having to abide by those privacy laws in light of the onslaught of swatting calls. They have secured a hearing with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that will take place sometime in the next 45 days.
The waiver is not permanent though, and Eastwood said the next battle they are going to fight is getting schools’ classification changed permanently.
“Our kids should have the same type of protection and services to solve this problem as a governmental agency or law enforcement,” he said. “There’s no reason why we should be excluded from that.”
School Resource Officers
One way threats in and to schools are being addressed is by putting School Resources Officers (SRO) in schools to both prevent crimes from happening and to respond quickly to them when they do.
SROs are police officers that also serve as counselors and emergency managers.
Eastwood said if there were a real threat of someone in the school, SROs would be helpful, but because the threats have all been empty and could be coming from anywhere in the world, having a physical police presence in the school is not going to solve the problem.
Middletown Mayor Joseph DeStefano said before a March 1 Council meeting he thinks SROs could be helpful, if not for combating swatting, at least for students and parents’ peace of mind as part of a larger initiative to combat the problem.
“They [the students] need to see a security figure, a law enforcement person in those schools to feel comfortable,” he said. “If they can’t feel comfortable and safe, they’re not going to learn.”
He talked with State Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther and New York State Sen. John Bonacic about funding for SROs and Bonacic told him there was a surplus in the school district’s unexpended fund balance that could pay for SROs.
Parent and Maple Hill PTO member Victoria Lang said having an SRO in her child’s school might ease her mind a little, but she also thought it wasn’t the answer for swatting.
“We need to share the focus of law enforcement to stop the threatening calls,” she said. “[We need to] push the FCC to give us a waiver.”
She encouraged any concerned parent to reach out to the PTO via email at [email protected]
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