Nine days into the new school year, early on a Thursday afternoon, Buchholz High School received a bomb threat. It was Aug. 19. Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) deputies quickly cleared the area and school resumed the next day.
But it would take weeks for a return to anything resembling normalcy.
Now, after two months and 17 false bomb reports, a shaken Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS) district, frustrated faculty and staff, anxious students and exhausted law enforcement are more than ready to move forward and end the county’s nightmare.
“There was enormous disruption to the instructional day, no question about it,” ACPS spokesperson Jackie Johnson said in a phone interview. “But there was also the fear and anxiety it created among the students, among families and among staff.”
Numerous law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, have assisted the investigations into the bomb threats sent to Buchholz (four), Newberry High (four), Eastside High (four), Gainesville High (four) and Newberry’s Oak View Middle School (one). (Newberry Elementary School was locked down on Sept. 28 but did not receive a threat, according to the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office.)
Those agencies, led by the ACSO, have arrested eight ACPS students in connection with 14 of the threats. They face charges that could result in up to 15 years in prison.
Three remain under investigation: Two at Buchholz on Sept. 1 and Sept. 2 and one at Gainesville High on Sept. 30. Monday marked the eighth straight school day without a bomb threat.
The law enforcement man-hours and disruption from regular patrols and ongoing investigations have been enormous, officials said.
The Gainesville Police Department (GPD) reported an average of 17 officers responding for three hours apiece to the four false reports at Gainesville High. That came to an estimated total of 204 work hours, according to GPD spokesperson Graham Glover.
ACSO spokesperson Art Forgey provided a breakdown of the eight threats at Buchholz and Newberry schools:
- Buchholz HS (Aug. 17)—16 deputies totaling 28 hours, 37 minutes
- Buchholz HS (Sept. 1)—21 deputies totaling 31 hours, 44 minutes
- Buchholz HS (Sept. 2)—10 deputies totaling 22 hours, 57 minutes
- Buchholz HS (Sept. 7)—11 deputies totaling 15 hours, 54 minutes
- Newberry HS (Sept. 23)—10 deputies totaling 22 hours, 32 minutes
- Newberry HS (Sept. 24)—11 deputies totaling 43 hours, 42 minutes
- Newberry HS (Sept. 27)—12 deputies totaling 34 hours, 54 minutes
- Newberry HS/Oak View Middle (Sept. 28)—28 deputies totaling 61 hours, 5 minutes
The Sept. 27 and Sept. 28 Newberry responses included a helicopter deployment. Forgey attributed that to Snapchat messages saying a sniper would start shooting evacuating students.
The University of Florida Police Department (UFPD) also assisted with their specially trained explosive-detecting K-9 units.
“We’ve logged about 53.5 hours throughout all the bomb threats,” UFPD K-9 handler Kenneth Motes said.
Finding which on-duty personnel to send to each call has had its challenges.
“Your patrol folks are the people who are out patrolling the streets, and they’re being called in to help with evacuation, to help with the reunification of the child to their parents at the drop-off or pick-up site, traffic picks up at hours we didn’t expect it to pick up,” Glover said. “The traffic picks up rapidly at the end of the school day, especially in high school as so many kids are doing activities.”
Graham said detectives and the criminal investigation division get involved in each of these crimes. And even though the bomb threats turn out to be hoaxes, they still require time to identify who reported them.
“It’s a coordinated effort,” Forgey said. “We’ve pulled our K-9 deputies to assist, even if their dog may be a single-purpose, like a narcotics dog, [the deputy] is still a body that can search. We’ve had to pull the administrative staff out of the office as well as the supervisory personnel for our school resource deputies to go and check for bombs.”
The fatigue factor sets in emotionally and physically for everyone involved.
“It’s just very frustrating because not only on us is it taxing to do that, but the parents that, when they dismiss school early and you know their day is disrupted because they have to go pick up their child, or the children that are there to learn, their day is disrupted,” Forgey said. “We were one of probably a long line of people that were very frustrated with this continuing to go on.”
The wave of bomb threats came after a summer of increased gun violence in Gainesville, including teen shootings that remain unsolved.
“There are other, more important things that we need to be investigating and doing, and when you’ve got to stop all that, put it to the side and to go deal with these call-ins that are false—we know they’re false now—but we don’t know at the time,” Forgey said. “You could be walking through a building and get blown up. It’s just very frustrating and very stressful.”
UFPD’s Motes said the same is true for K-9 units. He explained that dogs are similar to humans when working a scene.
“Just like a person, excessive working/training has wear and tear on the body,” Motes said. “They tire more quickly and require more breaks just as a person would when doing excessive exercise day in and day out.”
Glover hopes the arrests will act as a deterrent for any potential copycats.
“It seems that’s the case,” he said. “Most of the arrests have been made at school and other children have seen these kids get arrested. I think that has sent a very powerful image to those that may consider making these, what they call, jokes or pranks, and preventing them from doing that.”
Johnson said she had mixed feelings when students were taken into custody.
“When the arrests were made, there was a lot of relief that we saw that these were going to come to an end, but also a certain amount of disappointment because we know that the students who have been arrested, that they made decisions that are going to have a significant impact on their lives over the next 10 years, possibly longer,” Johnson said. “It’s a range of emotions.”
On the flip side, the arrests have given students and faculty peace of mind about returning to a safe environment, she said.
“Before the arrests were made, the attendance at the schools that were threatened dropped significantly,” Johnson said. “And the difference in attendance between the day before someone was arrested and the day after someone was arrested was enormous.”
Johnson said the district is still deciding if the schools affected will need to extend their calendar year to make up for lost instruction time.
Going forward, everyone in both law enforcement throughout the school district hopes that the unprecedented wave of fake bomb threats is over and the year will continue without interruption.
“The message is: You will be caught, you will be arrested, and you will be punished,” Glover said. “I think that message has been shared, but it certainly needs to be reminded that we may not get you an hour afterward, but our officers [and] the deputies at [ACSO] are smart folks and they are going to find you.”
Story timeline since Aug. 19:
Buchholz evacuated for bomb threat (Aug. 19)
Buchholz receives third bomb threat (Sept. 2)
Buchholz student arrested for bomb threats (Sept. 13)
ACSO clears Newberry HS bomb threat (Sept. 23)
Newberry HS cleared after bomb scare (Sept. 24)
Newberry HS receives all-clear from threat (Sept. 27)
Bomb threats hit 4 Alachua County schools (Sept. 28)
Gainesville High cleared after bomb hoax (Sept. 29)
NHS students detained in bomb threat probe (Sept. 30)
Two NHS students arrested for bomb threats (Sept. 30)
Eastside HS receives third bomb hoax (Oct. 5)