Last Updated: 1:34 p.m.
Matanzas High School went into lockdown, deputies swarmed toward the school, as did rescues, shortly after 11 this morning when a signal intended to alarm the school to the presence of an active shooter or assailant went off.
But all indications were that the system was having issues–or that the software company controlling the system was testing it–and that it was a false alarm.
By then, innumerable Flagler County Sheriff’s deputies’ units–upwards of 40 units were counted at one point–had rushed to the campus, Flagler County’s emergency helicopter, FireFlight, was hovering above the school, and numerous Flagler County Fire Rescue units and fire trucks from local agencies staged near the school.
Roads leading toward and out of the school were shut down. The alarm in effect put in practice the protocols schools and first-responding agencies have practiced, and were now executing. Sheriff’s deputies were going building by building to ensure that there were no assailants on campus.
Protocols went as far as establishing a point of contact for concerned parents, in this case at a church on Old Kings Road as the securing of the school continued, as did the lockdown. Curiously, the only person authorities saw violating the lockdown, without a law enforcement escort, was Kristin Bozeman, the school principal.
A witness at Forrest Grove Drive and Fieldstone Lane reported seeing deputies with long guns, “they’ve pushed everybody off of Forrest Grove Drive, right in front of the high school there,” and SWAT members with long rifles running down toward the school. A group of rescue units was staged a short distance away from the school, on an access road between Palm Harbor Parkway and North Old Kings Road. The witness described police units “booking it.” But shortly after noon, there were no indications of any hostile activities or sounds.
“It’s definitely an active scene,” the witness said.
Shortly after noon, Jason Wheeler, the district’s chief spokesman, confirmed that “basically we had an alarm go off inadvertently, we’re trying to figure out why,” and that the Sheriff’s Office rushed to the scene in response. A crew had actually been working on the alarm system for the last couple of days, Wheeler said.
“The sheriff’s office is going through their procedures to make sure everyone is safe,” he said, but the all-clear was expected any time (he spoke at 12:25 p.m., about an hour after the alarm sounded) and that “we’re expecting school to resume.” Wheeler stressed that rumors, including rumors of a stabbing, were patently false.
Wheeler and Thomas Wooleyhan, the district’s safety specialist, were at the scene. The school principal was expected to issue an automated phone call to parents in the Matanzas community, informing them of the issue. But there was to be no dismissal earlier than scheduled, and afternoon classes were expected to take place as scheduled, as close to the all-clear as possible.
By 12:30 p.m., deputies were returning to their command posts, their repeated clearance of buildings, rooms and areas, including athletic areas, completed.
Sheriff Rick Staly was of two minds after that happened. On one hand, he was displeased–and ready to be more than displeased–to learn preliminarily that the alarm may have been part of a test he was not made aware of ahead of time, thus requiring a massive response that could have put deputies and responders in danger. On the other hand, he also saw the response as a de-facto training exercise that, based on initial indications, went well.
“It’s my understanding–of course it’s all preliminary–that the school district has some kind of software that they purchased,” the sheriff said, “and the company out of Jacksonville decided to do a test, but didn’t tell anyone that they were testing their equipment. That’s what I’m being told right now. Now, we could dig further in and be told something different.” Meanwhile, it resulted in “this massive response by the sheriff’s office.”
The last time the sheriff’s office experienced something similar goes back to October 2019, when the husband of an employee at AdventHealth Palm Coast threatened to go there and shoot her. That required a hospital-wide lockdown and a response in various locations of the county. But there’d been no equivalent response to a school on today’s scale.
“This is the first activation that we didn’t know about. In other words, we do training or testing systems, we usually know of them in advance,” and it’s a controlled response, Staly said, with at least command staff knowing that it’s an exercise, even if field deputies don’t. “Whereas in this case if it’s accurate that the company decided to test their equipment, or they had a glitch in their equipment–that’s not what I was told, I was told they decided to test it–what I would say to the community is that our processes worked, with the exception that if they were going to test something, they should have told us in advance, instead of risking the lives of my deputies, firefighters, rescuers, basically everybody responding to a false alarm.”
Wheeler at 1:30 p.m. provided additional, clarifying information: the security company “is not at fault,” he said. The intercom system is connected to the security system. Crews working on it on Wednesday rebooted the security system, which worked fine. But there was a “calendar entry” in the system for an alarm, though no one knew about it. So there was “a brief tone at 11: 17, apparently it was an emergency tone, that’s when the school went ahead and called a code red out of an abundance of caution,” Wheeler said.
The system fired off like it was supposed to, Wheeler said, “and we’re trying to figure out why that was out there to begin with.”
There’d also been a security test at Flagler Palm Coast High School at 9:30 a.m. The Sheriff’s Office had been notified. “It worked flawlessly,” Staly said. Then came the alarm at Matanzas, which activated for a second or two only, but long enough to trigger the response. That then meant accounting for 100 teachers in a lockdown situation and going through all sorts of procedures with elevated risks of accidents.
“It was a massive undertaking and there’s all kinds of risks when you run blue lights and sirens,” Staly said, “and my team knows we respond immediately if we have an active incident at a school. I don’t want to jump to conclusions yet while they’re still dissecting it, understanding what happened, we can chalk it up to a training exercise, but that’s not usually the way we want to do it, because it frightens the students, it frightens the faculty, it frightens the community. Can things go wrong? absolutely things can go wrong.” He added: “We don’t need false alarms, because that’s upsetting to the community, and frankly it upsets me for my deputies, risking their lives, to drive as hard and fast as they can to get somewhere for a false alarm, that’s just dangerous for deputies to do, and it potentially backs up other calls.”
The system that either malfunctioned or was tested at Matanzas is in place in all nine district schools.
The response will be analyzed and critiqued, just like an exercise. Staly said Matanzas’s school resource deputies and others responded just as required. For now, he said he would “look at this as the glass half filled instead of the glass half empty. An unexpected training situation, but my preference would be–we don’t get our training this way.”
But barely after the lockdown was over, Kara Minn, a teacher at Matanzas, was emailing the sheriff: “I want to write to you to commend your team on such swift and diligent action,” she wrote. “I felt safe. I heard Deputy Landi in our hall doing his job. I heard a female officer clearing the building. I know so many will be upset with the false alarm making their day a bundle of worries, however I feel confident in our SROs and trust them to always do their best. You have a great team! Thank you!”