In February, the school received two threats. How does law enforcement handle those situations?
While Deputy Maxie Bragg III., walked through the courtyard of Lakewood Ranch High School during the lunchtime rush Feb. 26, a call came through his walkie-talkie.
The East County high school, for which he has served as a school resource officer (SRO) for 10 years, received a threat against the school via phone at 11:55 a.m.
As the school’s SRO, Bragg is the first line of defense at Lakewood Ranch High. Within 10 minutes, nearly 2,400 students were prohibited from leaving their classrooms and no one was allowed to enter or leave the school grounds.
“We have to take all these threats seriously, whether they’re credible or not,” Bragg said about the incident. “We lock down the whole school.”
Because Manatee County Sheriff's Department officers continue to work the case, the exact wording of the threat has not been revealed. However, it was the second the school received in February with the other coming on Feb. 10. The threat was one of nine against schools countywide from Jan. 27 through Feb. 26.
Manatee County School District Spokesman Mike Barber, who has worked for the district for a decade, has noticed more threats in recent months compared to a year ago.
How do schools and law enforcement officials determine whether the threat is credible, and keep students and faculty members safe?
The schools lock down as quickly as possible for most threats.
"In a bomb threat situation, we work with law enforcement to determine whether students should be removed from campus," said Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene. "Authorities will sweep the school looking for a bomb, and if they have reason to believe there is a bomb on campus, then administrators and law enforcement would decide the best course of action, which could mean taking students off campus."
Greene said the school's principal might take the lead in working with police to decide whether students should leave the campus. However, sending students away would be a rare case.
"In my mind, I don’t see any situation when we would send students home in middle of crisis, unless there's a bomb found on campus," Greene said. "Soft lockdowns are permitted once law enforcement and administration agree it is safe for parents to pick up students. If we need students removed from campus, we would have a designated secondary location to transport those students to, then parents would pick up students from that location when things have cleared up. Moving that many students is something that would come after many, many things have been considered first."
If the Sheriff's Department feels a legitimate bomb threat exists, it would send for its bomb squad.
On Feb. 26, Bragg called the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office and asked for additional help searching the campus. That practice is standard protocol for any threat made against a school.
By 12:25 p.m., six SROs from nearby schools responded to help keep the grounds secure, while officers searched common areas and looked for anything “out of the ordinary,” said Dave Bristow, spokesman for the sheriff's office.
“We have school resource deputies, so a lot of times that’s how we get involved,” Bristow said. “Many times, almost all the time, a detective gets assigned and a patrol comes out. Reaction time depends. If there’s no school resource deputy there, patrol responds in a matter of a few minutes.”
Bristow said pulling officers from other nearby schools is something that is usually done when any threat is made against a school.
He said it is a fast and effective way to recruit backup from individuals who know the schools’ layouts and can respond promptly, because they are nearby. It also keeps the sheriff's office from pulling deputies off their routes throughout the county.
“We can’t really take a breath until we’ve exhausted the search of all the campus,” Bristow said.
As is school district policy, locking students in classrooms and securing the perimeter handle most "threats of violence." That means no one leaves classrooms and no one is permitted to leave or enter the school's campus, until the lockdown has been lifted.
"People tend to think lockdown means just the outer part of school is secure, but it also means classrooms are locked," Greene said. "There's no movement. The lockdown is to ensure people stay where they are, which gives time for searching. Nothing from the outside is getting in."
Lakewood Ranch High entered soft lockdown mode at 1:15 p.m., after officials determined the threat wasn’t credible. A soft lockdown means students can leave campus if their parents sign them out and drive them off campus.
“If you think about it, why would someone call and let everyone know they were going to set off a bomb at the school?” Bristow said. “Why would you warn people?”
School District Manager of Security Troy Nelson said although the call was anonymous and the incident is still under investigation, calls are typically traceable.
“To trace calls, subpoenas are issued and phone records have to be tracked,” Nelson said. “But threats don’t just come in over the phone. Threats are received in a variety of ways.”
Threats are sometimes made through social media. Or, they can start as rumors between students, or be written on walls in bathrooms, such as an incident that occurred at Manatee High School a few weeks ago.
“Many times with threats against schools, we’ve tracked down the individuals who allegedly made the threats,” Bristow said. “Often, they are threats passed along at school and an SRO hears about them. We begin investigating, talking to students, and find the alleged source. Sometimes that person didn’t mean to say it or it wasn’t a serious threat.”
Barber said the majority of threats are made at middle and high schools, facilities SROs protect.
Only Gullett Elementary School has a deputy on site. All other East County elementary schools are without SROs.
“I don’t know if it’s a maturity level thing, but the older students — if they are the ones making the calls as a joke — are probably thinking they can get out of school early and miss class,” Barber said. “Elementary school kids aren’t as concerned about those things as older kids.”
Greene agreed the goal of such threats is to disrupt education and the school day. It can be an expensive prank.
"Yes, it costs taxpayers money," she said. "I don't know the cost, but if we're bringing more officers, a bomb squad and things like that on campus, it costs money. We’re pulling people to come to deal with this particular incident. It costs money, time and effort, pulling officers away from other things to come deal with the situation at the school.
"It’s a cost that that should gladly be paid, though, to ensure students are safe, because safety is our No. 1 priority. We don’t have the luxury to say we don’t think (a threat) is credible. We will always take every threat very seriously."
“In light of everything that’s going on with schools nationwide, we have to treat each threat seriously. That’s just the day and age we live in. That might not have been the case years ago, but all that changed with Columbine.” — Dave Bristow, spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff's Office