Southeast High School was on lockdown most of Wednesday morning, adding another Manatee-area school to the list of campuses dealing with threats of violence after the high school shooting in Parkland last week.
A threat written on the wall of a girls’ bathroom was found by a student around 8:35 a.m., according to Manatee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Dave Bristow. As the school went into lockdown, hundreds of parents began lining up to sign their children out of school. It wasn’t lifted until 12:30 p.m.
School district spokesman Mike Barber was at the school during the lockdown, and said afterward that threats like this one have become part of “an extremely, unfortunate serious of events.”
“It mirrors what’s going on across the country in school districts all over the nation, and we’ve seen a rash of it here in Manatee County. It’s really been a tough time for the school district and for our schools,” Barber said.
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Sheriff’s office deputies were spread across the campus as the threat was investigated.
At about 11:30 a.m., students were seen moving within the schools campus. Capt. Dennis Romano addressed anxious parents outside, saying that the lockdown was being downgraded to a “soft lockdown” or “shelter in place,” which means no one can enter or leave but students, faculty and staff can move freely about the campus.
“Bear with us a little longer,” Romano assured parents as he explained that the sheriff’s office wanted to make sure no other threats existed before lifting the lockdown and allowing parents on campus.
Surveillance video footage from just outside the bathroom was used to identify students who had been inside that bathroom, according to Romano. The students were interviewed by deputies, and their backpacks were searched.
A suspect had not yet been identified by Wednesday evening.
About 500 of the 1,700 students enrolled at Southeast signed out of school or were signed out by their parents after the lockdown was lifted.
On Tuesday, four children were charged after writing notes that threatened shootings at Manatee High School, Braden River Middle School and Team Success Charter School. A fifth student was charged Wednesday in connection to a second note found threatening a shooting at Manatee High.
Throughout the lockdown at Southeast on Wednesday, the crowd of parents continued to grow outside the campus, located at 1200 37th Ave. E. Many were texting with their children inside.
Many parents didn’t speak English and relied on others gathered to translate updates being given by Romano.
Lisa Buonarosa was one of those parents, staying in constant contact with her 16-year-old daughter, Rebecca.
When Buonarosa got the text that her daughter’s school was on lockdown, she told Rebecca to hide in a closet. But there weren’t any in Rebecca’s classroom. As Buonarosa rushed over to the school despite her daughter telling her not to, she received texts describing how students were huddled on the floor, with the lights off, doors locked and the windows blocked by paper.
Terrified, Rebecca told the Bradenton Herald afterward that as she hid inside her classroom she texted her family to let them know what was happening and to tell them she loved them.
Hours later, mother and daughter walked out arm in arm.
“It’s just really terrifying and there’s nothing you can do. All you can do is text the people that you love and hope for the best,” Rebecca said.
Rebecca has friends at Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Broward County where last week’s mass shooting occurred, including one of the students killed and one of the students seriously injured. As a result, the last week has been very difficult, she said. The day after the shooting, Buonarosa said, she had to come get her daughter out of school because she became upset as other students were watching a Snapchat video from the shooting.
The hoaxes and copycat threats, including the one at her own school, were devastating, Rebecca said.
“We were lock downed for two hours and no one really cares,” Rebecca said. “There are kids watching Netflix and teachers passing out snacks. And it’s like, are you kidding me? You’re not going to move a desk in front of the door or anything, or take any precaution at all?”
Martina Abundo, whose 15-year-old daughter is also a Southeast High student, said students were hearing a rumor circulating that a student brought a gun to school.
“She’s texting me saying that she heard kids say someone brought a gun to school,” Abundo said. “She said she’s scared.”
Buonarosa said she’s had enough. Her daughter would not be returning.
Something needs to change, she said, and the state Legislature and Congress need to take action. The Second Amendment was written at a time when muskets were the types of guns that existed, not assault riffles, she added, and they weren’t use for shootings at schools.
Anelis Gonzalez, a sophomore, was one of the first students to leave the campus after the lockdown was lifted. Tears streamed down her face as she walked out with her mother, Noemi, and they spoke to her older sister on the phone.
“It was scary,” Anelis said.
It was just before 9 a.m., she said, and she was in the middle of her gym class when the coaches blew their whistles and ordered everyone to run into the locker rooms.
“Everybody was calling their parents saying that they didn’t know what was going on, but told them that they loved them,” Anelis said.
Her mother jumped in her car and began driving to the school, she told the Bradenton Herald in Spanish. As she drove, her daughter continued to text her but she could not check them as she was driving, so she just erupted in tears.
“I have never lived through anything like this,” Noemi Gonzalez said. “I thought the worst.”
When she finally did arrive, she was the second parent outside the school but the crowd quickly grew. The family has just moved to Bradenton from a small town in Michigan, she explained. Her eldest daughter, who remained on the phone with her, told the Bradenton Herald how nerve-wracking it was being far away as this threat unfolded at her little sister’s school.
Gonzalez said she would not be sending Anelis to school Thursday, but didn’t yet know what she would after that.