Frightening report of gunfire at Clearwater elementary school was a hoax

Clearwater police officers pack up after searching Belleair Elementary during an hourlong lockdown that caused confusion among students and agony for parents. Police found no evidence of a shooter or gunfire.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Clearwater police officers pack up after searching Belleair Elementary during an hourlong lockdown that caused confusion among students and agony for parents. Police found no evidence of a shooter or gunfire.

CLEARWATER — An apparent prank call about gunfire at Belleair Elementary School put students through an hour of confusion and parents through an hour of agony Tuesday afternoon as the school was locked down and rapidly surrounded by dozens of police cruisers and officers armed with assault rifles.

A 911 call reporting gunshots was made from an unidentified cellphone at 2:53 p.m., as school was letting out for the day, Clearwater public safety spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts said. The school went into lockdown six minutes later, according to Pinellas schools spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra.

Children who were already outside the 690-student school at the corner of Missouri Avenue and Lakeview Road in Clearwater were herded off-campus by police, while the rest were ordered into locked classrooms or kept on the school buses they had already boarded. After officers searched the school and found no evidence of gunshots or a shooter, the remaining pupils inside were released about 4:15 p.m.

In the meantime, hundreds of parents, some weeping with fear or shouting with anger, gathered at the fringes of the school property. Some said they were upset by what they described as a lack of adequate communication about the incident from school officials, claiming that no formal notification call had been put out informing them of a potentially dangerous incident.

"I called about six times," said Diane Ellison, 43, waiting across Lakeview Road to pick up her 10-year-old grandson, who was still inside. She said she had only gotten an answering machine at the school's office. "The system that they got, it isn't working."

Sherrie Wilson said she planned to withdraw two children she has enrolled at Belleair Elementary after the confusion and fear surrounding the Tuesday lockdown. She said she had received no notification Tuesday afternoon.

"There's only three months left this school year and I hate to transfer them but ... I'm done. It's too much," the 26-year-old Largo woman said. "I want to know any little thing that happens. This is elementary school, not high school where (the students) have cellphones and can call."

However, Parra said a call went out to parents about 3:30 p.m., alerting them to the lockdown and police presence. There was a half-hour delay because "the priority was the safety and security of the students and following direction of law enforcement," Parra said. She said she could not speculate as to why some parents said they did not receive the message.

Tuesday's false alarm was the second time Belleair Elementary has gone into lockdown in as many months. On Jan. 7, police received a report of an armed man chasing someone near the school. That lockdown lasted less than 40 minutes. No students were harmed.

Watts said police continue to investigate who might have made the hoax call that began the lockdown Tuesday.

Times staff writer Mike Brassfield contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157.

Frightening report of gunfire at Clearwater elementary school was a hoax 02/26/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 11:00pm]

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