More than 80 vehicles traveling north on US Highway 27 in Newberry on Tuesday came to a halt in front of Oak View Middle School (OVMS), stretching from the traffic signal to past the CountryWay Town Square development.
Some drivers were on their way to hospital appointments in Gainesville, others were headed to make deliveries at Newberry businesses. UPS, FedEx and the United States Postal Service trucks were blocked from making deliveries, and one woman was on her way to a job interview.
At the same time, 26 Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) deputies were on the scene at Newberry High School, Newberry Elementary School and OVMS as well as two University of Florida K-9 bomb detection units deployed from Gainesville—all responding to the fourth bomb threat in as many school days.
NHS head football coach Ed Johnson was stationed at the southeast corner of the school along with an assistant principal as the entire school remained on lockdown. On the ground next to him was a green laminated sign on a stick that read “Mr. Johnson.”
According to Johnson, those signs were made after the first two bomb threats so that faculty and staff could hold them up as they led students out of the school for what they predicted would be future threats. They were quickly proved correct.
At every corner of all roads that lead to the three schools, at least two patrol cars were anchored, blocking traffic from getting through. Stressed out parents would stop and ask when they could pick up students, and deputies gave directions.
Southwest 4th Avenue, the road adjacent to the football field that leads straight to the NHS, was lined with parents. A golf cart carrying staff went car by car checking IDs so that students could be released to legal guardians.
Overhead the ACSO Air-1 helicopter swept the area.
Since the cafeteria staff and the entire school was forced to exit, they could not prepare lunch, causing the school to order Domino’s pizzas, according to students who were released and walking home disappointed that by 2 p.m., they hadn’t eaten yet.
Those students said that the bomb threats were “boring” at first, but now the stress is starting to weigh on them.
UF Police Sgt. Dale Holmes and his partner Boomer were one of several bomb-detecting K-9 units on scene at Newberry schools on Tuesday.
“University of Florida has three dogs out today and the ACSO has a few dogs out,” Holmes said. “We’re going out to another school,” he said as he left NHS and headed to Eastside High School where another threat was sent.
If it’s a really hot day, Holmes said the dogs will need a lot of breaks as they sweep areas.
NHS Academy of Criminal Justice director Patrick Treese was wearing a bullet proof vest as he patrolled the campus and worked along with the ACSO to secure the school.
“A ton of resources are being devoted to this matter,” ACSO spokesperson Kaley Behl said.
Normally 10 to 12 deputies are sent out to a bomb threat per school, according to Behl, but she said it is “hard to measure the investigatory response because of all the behind the scenes work going on.”
“On Tuesday we sent 26 deputies to Newberry High School and Oak View Middle School, plus the two bomb-detecting K-9s from UPD and our helicopter Air-1,” Behl said.
“All but three of those also went over to Eastside,” she added. “The helicopter, two bomb dogs and 23 deputies.”
According to Behl, the bomb-detecting dogs wear out quickly searching large areas: “You can’t overwork the dogs, they have to take breaks and play off of each other.”
The helicopter comes out as another point of view to add to the eyes on the ground, Behl said.
“This isn’t just ‘I place a device anymore,'” Behl said. “This is ‘I have guns and I’m going to shoot you, so now you’re looking for snipers and things like that. Eyes ahead gives you a better advantage.”
On Wednesday school officials sent out a message addressing rumors of a shooting allegedly planned for Thursday. They said the threat is not considered credible but still asked students not to bring backpacks to help streamline security procedures.
Behl suggested some steps people can take to get through the threats.
“No. 1, don’t buy into rumors,” she said. “The ACSO has the investigation and if anyone has any questions about anything or concerns or wants a follow up, please call us directly. And also we reiterate, see something, say something…The community is our eyes and ears and we need them.”
ACSO is directing anyone with information to contact the Criminal Investigations Division at (352) 367-4170. Those who have information can remain completely anonymous by contacting CrimeStoppers through their “P3 Tips” application available through the App Store or Google Play, or by calling (352) 372-STOP (7867) and www.stopcrime.tv. You can also report tips to the Newberry High School administrators at (352) 472-2201 or online at www.getfortifyfl.com.
Officials are offering a reward of $4,000 to anyone who comes forward with information leading to an arrest. The City of Newberry is also matching the $1,000 CrimeStoppers award.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.