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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Investigation continues into Buchholz High School bomb threats, campus security questioned

In the past month, the school has had four false alarms

Cassandra Jones felt paralyzed as she watched chaos erupt at Buchholz High School Aug. 19. Her mind immediately jumped to the possibility of a school shooting.

“Everybody was running to their cars; people almost crashed into each other,” the 17-year-old junior said. “It was so bad … I was freaking out.” 

But with each threat, Cassandra said students have become more nonchalant. Despite this, she believes it’s necessary to treat each threat seriously. 

“It's kind of like ‘boy cries wolf’ situation,” she said. “My classmates, they literally are just like, ‘Oh, OK. I leave and go home now.’”

On Aug. 19, Buchholz High School received its first false bomb threat of the school year. Nearly one month later, the school had its fourth. 

False bomb threats at Buchholz are not unique to this school year. In 2016, a 14-year-old Buchholz freshman was responsible for three false bomb threats. The threats required an extensive law enforcement response.

Buchholz is the largest public high school in Alachua County, with more than 2,200 students. The string of recent false bomb threats at the school has led to work disruption, missed class time and curriculum setbacks for the thousands of students, teachers and parents involved.  

After the first threat, two more were called into the school Sept. 1 and 2. The fourth occurred Sept. 7. Each sweep took over an hour and law enforcement deemed the campus clear for return after all four found no evidence of an explosive device present. 

While Cassandra believes the second and fourth threats were handled well, the first one was disorganized and during the third threat, students were forced to brave inclement weather. 

Cassandra was in her third class period during the third threat Sept. 2. After being evacuated to the football field, students began to separate off into their friend groups, ignoring the request to stay with their classmates as the weather turned for worse. 

“It started to rain, and the teachers were blocking off the entrance and exit,” she said. “There were kids jumping the fences, and then we pushed through all of the teachers. Everybody just started running.” 

Alachua County Public Schools spokesperson Jackie Johnson said the school board is fully cooperating with local law enforcement in the ongoing investigation. As of Sept. 12, however, no arrests have been made. 

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“We want to put a stop to it,” Johnson said. “Whatever help we can provide to law enforcement to help get that done, we are doing.” 

Johnson said she understands parents’ anxiety and irritation, but officials can’t make information about the investigation public.

“We do not want to jeopardize any investigation because we want this person or persons caught,” Johnson said. “We need to let [law enforcement] do their job and support them as they do their job.” 

Alachua County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Capt. Kaley Behl also acknowledged the disturbance to the school day and community members’ frustration. She said the initial response to each threat from ACSO included a range of nine to 21 officers in addition to the school board’s resources, bus drivers and UF’s bomb canines. 

There’s been a spread of recent rumors and questions about federal help in the ongoing investigation. Behl said ACSO is using mutual aid — the agreement between law enforcement agencies to lend assistance across jurisdictions — and various resources from surrounding departments, including the FBI. But ACSO is still leading the investigation. 

“The FBI has resources available to us,” Behl said. “To say that they’re not involved at all is not true — they are. They’re helping, they’re assisting. But they’re not the ones doing the investigation.” 

There have been seven bomb threats made in Alachua County since January including the four at Buchholz, she said. 

“We have to treat every single bomb threat as though it is credible,” Behl said. “It’s a form of terrorism. It really is.” 

The effects of fake bomb threats go beyond logistical and financial disruption. These threats further hinder attempts to stay on the curriculum's schedule.

Cassandra wants more resources dedicated to campus security. She wishes the school’s administration had more of a set plan for moving students during an evacuation. 

“I feel like we should have more security in the school rather than having our classes taken away from us and our learning ability taken away from us,” Cassandra said. 

Cassandra’s experiences ring similar to some Buchholz alumni who faced the string of fake bomb threats in years past. Daniel Funston, a 2018 Buchholz alumnus, remembers the initial fear on campus during the 2016 bomb threats. 

“We were kind of confused and a little worried that they could be real,” Funston said. 

Behl said the student responsible was charged with three felony counts, had to pay restitution fees and perform community service hours. Behl said the student had to pay roughly $5,500 in restitution to the school board and $2,500 to ACSO. 

Whoever is responsible for the recent string of threats could accrue a second-degree felony with the potential to pay fines up to $10,000. 

By the third bomb threat, Funston said students began to doubt the validity and seriousness of the threats. Instead of fear, students felt inconvenienced by the repeated interruption of the day. 

“We were just like, ‘Oh, now it’s just annoying,’” he said. 

Funston said his awareness of school safety at Buchholz was eclipsed by the distraction of his schoolwork. The disruption from the string of threats his sophomore year made him more in tune to the open campus. 

“As far as campus security goes, I would not call Buchholz a secure campus,” he said. 

Cassandra and Funston are not alone in their concerns over campus safety. Deborah Lee Jones, a Gainesville resident and Buchholz High School parent, is troubled by the safety protocols and response of the school board. 

Jones and her family recently moved to the Gainesville area from Orange County. After enrolling her son at Buchholz, she noticed a lack of campus security. 

“We walked right into open double doors, and we walked around that mall area for about five minutes looking for the office,” she said. “No one stopped us. No one asked us anything. I never saw a police officer.” 

The bomb threats and varying evacuation processes have solidified Jones’ worries over her son’s safety. 

Jones’ son, who was on campus during the bomb threats, is now missing additional days due to a possible COVID-19 exposure on campus. When Jones went to the school to pick up her son to quarantine, she had no issue walking into the building. 

“I walked right in,” Jones said. “I could have gone and sat in a classroom if I wanted. I don’t think anybody would’ve stopped me.” 

Jones believes there needs to be more communication from the school’s administration to the community. 

For parents who may not be able to be as active in their student’s schooling due to work, Jones expressed concern about the lost educational resources available to those families.   

“The principal needs to address the community,” she said. “The school board needs to address the community. Something needs to be put in place for these kids so that they don’t continue to miss all this learning.” 

You can submit tips anonymously or on record to Alachua County Crime Stoppers at 1+(352)-372-STOP for up to a $1,000 reward. 

Contact Renee Hancock at rhancock@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @reneehancockuf.

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