South Florida schools locked down, cleared following hoax threats, police say

Published: Oct. 11, 2022 at 10:15 AM EDT
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Authorities said at least 12 schools throughout the state, including several in South Florida, were hit with hoax threats and locked down on Tuesday.

Boca Raton police said a report of an "armed subject" at Boca Raton Community High School turned out to be a false alarm and there was no danger to students or staff members.

In a tweet around 10 a.m., the Boca Raton Police Department said it received a call in reference to a "suspicious incident" at the school, located at 1501 Northwest 15th Court, just off Interstate 95.

The school was placed on a precautionary code red lockdown — meaning no one could enter or leave any buildings on campus — and officers searched the school.

"At this time, nothing suspicious has been located," the police department tweeted, adding that "there is no evidence of a shooting or an armed subject on the campus."

Police eventually cleared the school at 10:23 a.m. and said "nothing suspicious was located."

In a callout to parents, the School District of Palm Beach County said the school was locked down "due to an unconfirmed threat."

"Parents, your children are safe. Please do not come to the campus at this time," the district said in its call.

"The code yellow goes off and no one says, 'It’s a drill.' And then the code red and we’re like, OK, then somebody is on campus," student Nick Ozdal said. "So people start checking Twitter and see Boca police posted there might be somebody armed on campus. There might be a shooter. So then we’re just locked in class for 45 minutes. Can’t move, can’t talk. Shut the blinds and everything."

Ozdal walked WFLX through what it was like during the code red lockdown at Boca Raton High School Tuesday morning.

"It is pretty scary because of what happened at other schools like Stoneman Douglas and everything," Ozdal said. "You never feel 100% safe at school. It sucks that that’s the way it is in America. Even though there’s police at school, you just don’t know."

Fellow students and parents shared the same feelings as Boca Raton and school police descended on the high school after what turned out to be an unfounded call about a shooting there.

"I just started seeing police and fire swarming into the school and I knew exactly what it would be for," parent Evelyn Bunn said. "When you see that, you know exactly what’s happening."

Boca Raton police said their response was exactly what they train for.

According to the call records, the first of dozens of units arrived at the school just 90 seconds after the call came in.

Two school police officers and one Boca Raton police officer were already stationed on the campus.

"Right away there were cops searching every hallway, every building. First, second, third floor, and they were on it right away," student Savannah Horn said.

"My first instinct was just to be close to my daughter," parent Kelley Horn said. "And if I could help any of the kids, like my daughter, get out safe, I want to be here to do that."

Records WPTV got from police show the call came from an untrackable prepaid phone.

While the call was a hoax and students and staff were never in danger, it doesn't change the response and the emotions that come with it.

"I was full of rage because my children go to school and they are not safe and could be shot," Bunn said. "So I called my son. He was hiding in a closet."

Boca Raton police said other South Florida schools were placed on lockdown Tuesday after "receiving similar reports," including Cardinal Newman High School in West Palm Beach.

Farther south in Miami-Dade County, a spokeswoman for Miami-Dade County Public Schools said a "hoax threat" was called into several schools, including Miami Central High School and Ronald Reagan Senior High School.

In Broward County, Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, West Broward High School and Charles W. Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines, and Pompano Beach High School were also locked down.

Elsewhere in the state, Palmetto Ridge High School in Collier County, Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Riverview High School in Sarasota, and Pinellas Park High School were also impacted by the hoax threats.

The FBI said hoax threats to schools and other public places — also known as "swatting" — are a federal crime of threatening interstate communications.

Anyone who posts those threats, whether over social media, via text message, or through email, can receive up to five years in federal prison, according to the FBI.

These calls trigger a large response of police and rescue crews. Even when it’s a hoax, until there’s an all-clear given, there’s a risk for injury and accidents.

Law enforcement experts said sometimes that’s the intention: someone getting hurt. Other times it’s just to create chaos, disruption, and panic.

Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg said there have not been any "swatting" cases for him to prosecute recently, but the notion that this could just be a harmless incident is a mistake.

"People may think swatting is a minor crime because it’s a false 911 call. But if you are alleging that there’s a gunman in the school, that takes it up to a second-degree felony punishable by 15 years in prison," Aronberg said. "And then we will seek restitution and costs. And so it’s more than prison time you’re facing. You’re also facing a hefty bill to reimburse taxpayers for your actions."

Mental health experts say the damage is done.

"One of the most difficult times of a time like that is the anticipation, you know, when is the gunman going to come through the door, what's going to happen to us, what are we going to do, and that's what sets the stage for the trauma," said Psychotherapist Kristen Bomas.

The FBI released the following statement Tuesday about the hoax threats:

"The FBI is aware of numerous swatting incidents wherein a report of an active shooter at a school is made. The FBI takes swatting very seriously because it puts innocent people at risk. While we have no information to indicate a specific and credible threat, we continue to work with our local, state, and federal law enforcement partners to gather, share, and act upon threat information as it comes to our attention. We urge the public to remain vigilant, and report any and all suspicious activity and/or individuals to law enforcement immediately."

The Boca Raton Police Department, however, said the FBI is not involved in the case at Boca Raton High School.

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