Southern Utah University students woke up to a campus alert Thursday morning notifying them to the possibility of an active shooter. Law enforcement spent hours searching and clearing buildings.

No shots were fired. No one was injured. No active shooter has been located.

A campus alert had described a possible suspect, but later the university said “it’s highly unlikely that the possible suspect was involved in the threat.” By midday, the university had announced there was no longer an active threat on campus and law enforcement was investigating the origin of the initial report.

When the Deseret News further inquired whether or not the call was believed to be an incident of swatting or not, a university spokesperson said there was an active investigation going on.

A public affairs specialist from FBI’s Salt Lake City office said the office was aware of the incident and was working with its partners on it. The Cedar City Police Department did not immediately return a phone call from the Deseret News.

“We are grateful to SUU Police and the many local law enforcement agencies for their swift response and superb coordination, prioritizing safety on our campus and in our community,” said SUU President Mindy Benson. “Thank you to all who were an important part of the successful resolution of the situation.”

Here’s a closer look at what happened at SUU and what Chris Bertram, a former deputy chief with the Unified Police Department, told the Deseret News about the incident.

Police working to determine if an active school shooter threat at SUU was legitimate or a swatting hoax

The timeline

On Thursday morning, SUU sent out a campus alert to students saying that the school had an unconfirmed report of an active shooter. The campus community was advised to avoid traveling to campus until further notice and the school was locked down.

The university had been aware of a suspicious phone call alerting the school to an active shooter. The school sent out an alert describing a suspect as a white male aged 20-to-25 years old with long hair, a black cap, black shades and a green T-shirt.

Iron County School District said that all schools in the Cedar City area were on secure action. This meant that the doors to these schools locked — no one was allowed in or out — and classes continued uninterrupted.

By 10:06 a.m., the university sent out another alert saying it that had received “reports of hearing noises that sounded like shots fired at the Science Building.” Law enforcement began searching the buildings and later confirmed that no shots were fired.

Soon, Iron County School District lifted its secure action. “Everything back to normal, it was a precautionary measure. There were never threats made to ICSD schools,” the district said.

Back over at SUU, classes and activities for the rest of the day were canceled and law enforcement searched and cleared campus buildings for hours. By 1:10 p.m., the university sent out an alert saying all remaining buildings were cleared and search, and it was safe for the campus community to leave the buildings they were in.

SUU Police Chief Carlos Medina told KSL that officials were “taking it seriously until we find out through our investigation that it was a hoax.”

When asked whether or not the response was efficient, Bertram said it’s important to take into account that it’s a large university campus and Cedar City has more limited resources than what’s available on the Wasatch Front.

“That university is a large campus and unless you have specific information to a specific building or specific area of campus, you may be left with the fact that you’re going to have to clear the entire campus to just make sure that there is, in fact, no threat,” Bertram said. He later added that there are several difficult decisions that have to be made in instances like this — such as whether or not they should call the state SWAT team out of Salt Lake City and have them drive down as quickly as they can.

In the case of SUU, there were reports of shots fired at the Science Building, which law enforcement determined to not have happened.

Bertram said he thought it was responsible that law enforcement ensured that the campus was safe. Once a campus is searched and clear, Bertram said police can be more sure that there is not a potential threat on campus.

After an incident like this, Bertram emphasized the importance of making sure that police units and other law enforcement agencies are trained on how to respond, especially in the case of a threat that could lead to injuries or deaths. In addition to individual units training, Bertram said officers should know how to coordinate with other agencies in case they end up working together to resolve an incident.

Bertram said agencies can do an after-action report and analyze whether or not they responded quickly enough, find gaps in their response and determine if they have a plan in place to call the necessary resources down if there’s another threat.

The dangers of swatting

It’s unknown at this point if Thursday’s call was a swatting incident or not.

Swatting is a false emergency report where a person calls a law enforcement dispatch center and makes a false report about a critical incident.

When police get a call about an emergency report, Bertram said they have to take it seriously. “Swatting calls are just as dangerous as anything, and mostly because, as law enforcement, we are expected to respond when we get this information in a very quick tactical manner.”

Depending on the false critical incident that a person makes, making a false emergency report can be a misdemeanor or even a second or third degree felony. These kinds of fraudulent reports result in law enforcement quickly mobilizing to address a threat that’s not present. It can divert resources away from areas of real critical need — and especially for rural communities, this can strain resources.

It’s unclear just how prevalent swatting is since until the FBI started a database in 2023, these incidents were not tracked annually.

K-12 School Shooting Database tracked the number of swatting incidents that have happened in U.S. schools (K-12) since January 2023. There were more than 700 recorded incidents in 2023. So far in 2024, the database has tracked 76.

Gov. Spencer Cox signed a bill earlier this year addressing false reports of emergencies at schools. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Ryan D. Wilcox, R-Ogden, and Sen. Don L. Ipson, R-St. George, and it makes it a second degree felony to falsely report emergencies at schools in certain circumstances.

At the bill’s committee hearing earlier this year, Wilcox recounted an incident in 2023 where a person later determined to be a “foreign actor” had claimed there was an active shooter who had killed multiple children — multiple schools throughout the state were impacted.

“We had a good response for the most part,” Wilcox said. “Our officers didn’t do what we saw in some of the disasters around the country. They responded quickly. They were coordinated. We learned a lot that day. A lot of what we learned was where our holes are.”

It’s very difficult to prevent swatting calls from happening, Bertram said. “On the other hand, I think one of the things that we can do is make sure police officers are trained and that they keep that strategic open vision of what could be going on.”