School lockdowns leave Hernando families on edge. How worried should they be?

Five were arrested last week in a gun-theft incident on school grounds. Schools were locked down twice the week before. School board members want “zero tolerance.”
Hernando County Sheriff's deputy Cory Zarcone talks to students during breakfast time in the cafeteria of Brooksville Elementary School in 2018. [Times (2018)]
Hernando County Sheriff's deputy Cory Zarcone talks to students during breakfast time in the cafeteria of Brooksville Elementary School in 2018. [Times (2018)]
Published September 12

Every weekday, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office posts on Facebook a daily briefing listing the incidents its deputies have responded to.

In recent weeks, the posts have been shared among neighborhood groups — and especially among parents of school-age children — because of the large number of incidents happening at local schools.

On Aug. 19, the Sheriff’s Office reported two drug possession cases and a disorderly conduct case across five different schools. On Aug. 20: Investigations at six schools, including two battery cases and a set of threats between two students, plus two more debunked threats.

On Sept. 5, five Hernando High School students were arrested after deputies said one of them stole a gun, intending to sell it at school, and in turn had it stolen by other students. Also that day, deputies arrested two Central High School students on battery charges, checked out three school threats and cited a student caught vaping in a courtyard.

A week earlier, Central High School was locked down twice in four days over active-shooter scares. Deputies determined one threat was a hoax and the other a false alarm.

In this school year’s first 18 days, according to the briefings, deputies handled at least 55 such incidents, including a dozen battery cases and 26 threat-related incidents.

David Lewis, a Sheriff’s lieutenant who oversees school resource deputies, said he didn’t think the number of most kinds of incidents were inordinately high so far this school year.

Battery cases, he said, tend to peak toward the beginning of the school year, because student grudges from the previous year may turn into fights in their first days in classrooms. If these cases seem unusually frequent to parents, it may be because they’re communicated on social media, which makes them easier to notice.

But school threat reports have gone up, Lewis said.

Schools and law enforcement officers have emphasized a “see something, say something” attitude toward threats, he said. That means students are more prone to report things they overhear, or to tell parents who call the school. The uptick has been mostly in reports of unverified threats, according to Lewis.

“That’s the difficult part for the law enforcement side,” he said. “When you get threats like these, you have to treat every single one of them as if they are a real thing.”

It shows part of a world that didn’t exist a few years ago, he said, and certainly not when he was in high school.

America’s frequent mass shootings have put students, teachers and parents on high alert, he said, and the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., cast a particularly large shadow locally. Snippets of conversation — trash talk, discussions of video games — that once seemed innocuous, may now incite fear.

“I think (it would help) for parents to help reinforce it from their side — these kinds of words, ‘guns,’ ‘bombs,’ ‘weapons,’ is just not acceptable in a school environment,” Lewis said.

Investigating threats takes up law enforcement resources, Lewis said. School resource deputies often can handle them on their own, but the possibility of imminent violence calls for a major response. Nearly 40 units responded to the first Central High lockdown, he said, and nearly 50 showed up to Hernando High, where a gun really was involved.

School Board chair Susan Duval said Tuesday that these first few weeks of school have seemed unusual, and she’s not sure what to pin them on. But in an informal School Board meeting, she called for harsh discipline for the students making threats.

“I don’t have a heart for these kids who are doing these things and saying these things and creating disruptions for the 99 percent of our kids who are doing the right things and trying hard,” she said. "When it comes to expulsion for these kids, I’m not backing off.”

“Zero tolerance,” interjected board member Gus Guadagnino.

“It’s just wrong what they’re doing,” Duval said.

Superintendent John Stratton praised the composure of law enforcement, school employees and students during the lockdowns. He said the process of expelling offending students will be an opportunity for crucial insight into what went wrong.

Board members also advocated for schools to hold assemblies for individual grade levels — or smaller groups — reiterating the repercussions of making threats.

“If we’re not preventative, we’re not going to fix anything," Stratton said.

The Hernando High incident, which put the school and others nearby on lockdown for about two hours, left some parents shaken.

Jamie Hamby, the mother of a Hernando High freshman, learned of the lockdown as it was happening via a Snapchat message from her son.

“It scared me to the core,” she told the Tampa Bay Times that afternoon.

These events can traumatize those in and around the schools, Lewis said. During the first Central High lockdown, he recalled, students thought they heard gunshots.

What they really heard, Lewis thinks, was the sound of a lockdown: Desks and chairs scraping across floors and slamming into doors as students and teachers barricaded their classrooms.

The threat was a hoax, and the gunshots weren’t real. But the fear was.