OU’s swatting event was a hoax, but the trauma it caused was real
Run. Hide. Fight.
Those were the words that ended the first of several text updates from OU’s emergency alert system on the night of April 7.
The Norman Police Department had received calls that appeared to be coming from OU’s campus. The caller told police there was a shooting at the Bizzell Memorial Library and that one of the caller’s friends had been shot. And in secondary calls to Norman dispatch, gunshots can be heard.
But as it turns out, it was a swatting incident — that is, a big hoax.
Last year, there were hundreds of swatting incidents at college and school campuses all over the country. And though these events turn out to be fake, the trauma people experience is real.
Manny Tijerina is a musical theater freshman at OU. That night, he and his girlfriend had attended a playwriting festival on campus and were hanging out afterward in the musical theater building. That’s when the text alert came.
They locked themselves in a women’s changing room, sat on the floor and waited. They squeezed between two large windows, “trying desperately” to keep their bodies and shadows out of the line of sight.
“I’m not just scared to lose my life,” Tijerina said. “I am scared that I’m going to hear gunshots right outside this window, right in this hallway. Because I don’t want that trauma to be with me, like, for the rest of my life. Even hearing the helicopters, it was kind of just really, really jarring.’
After about half an hour, he broke down and started crying. He said the fear had turned to anger.
“A lot of anger,” Tijerina said. “Less sadness. More anger. Angry that I have to worry about this stuff.”
Tijerina said though he acknowledges it could’ve been much worse, the experience still left him with lasting effects. A few days after the swatting, he said he was walking outside when he heard a loud “pop” followed by police sirens.
“I started walking faster, and my heart started beating faster, and I had to get back to the dorm and get back to the car really quick, because I didn’t want to be in a crossfire between a police officer — but then I looked over, and it was like a traffic stop,” Tijerina said. “I was like, what the hell? Is this like, what I have to live with now?”
The police response was also very real. Within about two minutes, police officers arrived on campus. Nate Tarver, Chief of Police at OUPD, said around 117 officers came in from all over the area. He said these events can be dangerous — officers are speeding to get there and mistakes can be made in the rush.
“Obviously, we don’t want to take out or involve any innocent party in trying to get there,” Tarver said. “We have to do due diligence on that side, but at the same time, have to be as quick as we can to get there, to stop any possible killing or assaults that are going on.”
Tarver said the 911 call itself “raised some eyebrows” when the caller said the shooting was at the Van Vleet Oval. While that is the formal name of that area of campus, it’s more commonly called the “South Oval.” But Tarver said there’s no time to question those calls — “you have to respond.”
“You don’t know until you check into it whether it’s fake,” Tarver said. “It’s real, and as real as it can get. And just like in that particular instance, it was very real until we determined that it wasn’t. We can’t afford to think any other way.”
He said if there’s any good that came from the swatting event, it’s that it offered an opportunity to see exactly what their response would look like in case of a real shooting. His department began looking at ways they could do things better, like managing specific lines of communication between different groups of officers.
“We couldn’t duplicate it under any other circumstances,” Tarver said. “So we take advantage of this being what it was, to look at it and say, ‘Okay, here’s what we can do differently next time.’”
The investigation into the OU incident is still ongoing, but university President Joseph Harroz said in a mass email they believed though the calls appeared like they were coming from campus, they likely came from outside of the country.
Jim Burkman is a professor at Oklahoma State University and directs the school’s Center of Telecommunications and Network Security. He explains it like this: every cell phone call is just a series of ones and zeros, and that tells the receiver who’s calling.
“So I can change those ones and zeroes to any number that I want,” Burkman said. “This is how you get spam calls from 000000 — they’re just changing those first packets of information, and there’s nothing that stops them from doing it.”
He said once the hacker has a stolen phone number to use, they can replace the ones and zeros.
“And I represent as having your phone number,” Burkman said. “It’s just that easy.”
Swatting incidents have also been known to involve AI voice programs that use a generated voice to make 911 calls. But Burkman cautions against blaming the tech, pointing to positive ways AI can help people. He says it’s about the humans — not the tech.
“There’s always going to be some people in our civilization who, for a myriad of reasons, don’t perform in ways that the rest of us do,” Burkman said. “It’s not about the technology, it just truly isn’t.”
As police departments and colleges continue to grapple with the meteoric rise in swatting events, Manny Tijerina said at least now he knows what to do — not if, but when this happens again.
And maybe it’ll be another hoax, but maybe it won’t be.
“I mean, I fully expect — especially being an actor, an entertainer — to go through things like this again,” Tijerina said. “And I mean, yeah, it’s just, it’s expected. It’s expected.”
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