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Call empties schools

Five Inverness schools are evacuated after a caller to Bubba the Love Sponge's radio show warns of a bomb threat, scaring parents.

By CARRIE JOHNSON
and BARBARA BEHRENDT

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001


INVERNESS -- You never know what you're going to hear on the Bubba the Love Sponge radio show.

Thursday morning, a man called and said a boy in Inverness was threatening to blow up a school. Bubba didn't pay much attention and hung up.

photo
[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Citrus High ninth-grader Jessica Littleton, left, huddles against the chill with John Jaderlund on Thursday morning. Students spent about an hour outside.
Many years ago, nobody else would have reacted, either. But things have changed since Columbine and other school violence cases became so prevalent.

Inverness parents lit up the local 911 lines with panicked calls. The next thing you know, five of the city's public schools were evacuated.

Meanwhile, unrelated to the radio call, Lecanto Middle School evacuated because of a bomb threat. And two other elementary schools decided to hold disaster drills.

It all added up to the largest school evacuation in Citrus County history.

"Yes, the day was interrupted to varying degrees," said Bonnie Hardiman, director of student services. "A lot of parents, a lot of students and a lot of staff were inadvertently made to feel very anxious. But then, we don't have a lot of control over these things."

Inverness police still were trying to determine who telephoned the morning call-in show about 8 a.m. The program is aired on WXTB-FM 97.9, known as 98 Rock.

Bubba, whose full name is Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, said he barely listened to the caller before hanging up.

"I think I handled myself the way you should do it," Clem said later, during a telephone interview. "It's really a no-win situation for a talk-show host: If you react, you're going to get a lot of copy-cat calls.

"If I thought it was a serious threat, I would have definitely tried to trace the call," Clem said.

Callers to the show aren't screened before being put on the air. There's no "caller-ID," and the only way to trace a call is to hit *69, something producers rarely have time to do, said Brent Hatley, executive producer of the Bubba Radio Network.

"We get so many callers that sometimes the phone starts ringing the minute you put it down again," he said.

The caller did not mention a specific school. As a result, police had to notify all the schools in Inverness, said Officer James Gallina, who was the supervising officer at the time of the evacuation.

"That made it more complex than a regular bomb threat," he said.

Students at Citrus High School, Inverness Primary School, Inverness Middle School, Pleasant Grove Elementary School and the Renaissance Center were notified at 8:15 a.m.

Police and school officials conducted a sweep of the buildings. Nothing suspicious was found, and students returned to class about 9:20 a.m.

One Inverness school, Withlacoochee Technical Institute, wasn't included in the evacuation order. Inverness Police Chief Joe Elizarde said his agency was investigating why.

Later, school officials who were still unsure of the content of the threat decided to ask Floral City Elementary School and Hernando Elementary School to run routine disaster drills, an exercise that includes evacuation.

All totaled, more than 5,000 students and hundreds of staff were disrupted, a record number for a school-day evacuation, Hardiman said.

"The superintendent's office was notified by the schools that the Inverness police were asking them to evacuate and, of course, we responded to such a request. Both agencies are concerned about safety," Hardiman said. "We don't believe that we cannot respond."

Lecanto Middle evacuated just before 11 a.m. According to Hardiman, the school was planning a drill Thursday, anyway, but students stayed outside longer than anticipated as law enforcement and administrators swept the building to be sure there was no bomb.

She had no further details on the incident, which remains under investigation.

Hardiman said the Inverness situation apparently was related to a previous incident involving a bomb mentioned at Inverness Middle School. The man who called 98 Rock had been identified as a Citrus parent who was complaining that the school had not dealt with the prior situation.

"Our Code of Conduct offers a whole spectrum of discipline alternatives," Hardiman said, noting that, even though parents may not see the results of student discipline decisions, the schools still follow through with those decisions.

Such decisions are not shared publicly.

"That doesn't mean a school didn't respond," she said. "We know that it causes an additional frustration if your child has been involved in a situation and you want to know what happened to the others in that situation. But the school is not in a position to share that . . . and that is not necessarily comforting to the parent."

Lorraine Lombardo didn't hesitate before taking two of her children -- 12-year-old Ashley and 15-year-old Jackie -- out of school Thursday. She said Columbine wasn't far from her mind when she saw flashing lights outside the school buildings.

"It seems like every day there's an incident like that somewhere in the world," she said.

Jackie Lombardo, a freshman at Citrus High, said she was frightened when she heard the evacuation order. But deep down, she was pretty confident it wasn't anything serious.

"I know it could happen here, but it wouldn't really happen here," she said.

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