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All-clear posted at USF Sarasota-Manatee after report of shots fired

 Law enforcement officials responded to reports of shots fired at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus on May 2, 2023.
Eric Garwood
Law enforcement officials responded to reports of shots fired at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee campus on May 2, 2023.

The Manatee County sheriff says he is angry over a likely hoax that was repeated on campuses around the state.

Law enforcement officers carrying rifles swarmed the campus of University of South Florida in Sarasota Tuesday morning following a report of shots fired, though authorities learned hours later the incident was likely part of a hoax that similarly affected campuses in Florida on Tuesday.

A USF-wide alert was texted around 11:30 a.m. saying shots had been reported near the first floor gymnasium and ordered staff and students to evacuate. A follow-up alert advised everyone to remain clear of the campus. A USF official later announced classes would be cancelled for the remainder of the day and that an email would be sent to students explaining what comes next during final-exam week.

Campus officials posted an all-clear around 1:30 p.m.

Manatee County Sheriff Rick Wells, appearing in a news conference after the all-clear, confirmed no shooter had been found and that similar hoaxes have taken place at a variety of colleges in Florida.

“I’m pissed,’’ he said, adding the operation likely cost the county about $100,000. “If we catch you, you’re going to jail.’’

Deputies by the dozen armed with rifles were initially seen entering the main building and blocking access at the main entrance on Tamiami Trail, immediately across the street from Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

Students said they heard the campus-wide warning and barricaded their classroom doors with furniture, file cabinets and other heavy obstacles. They said deputies then came to their classrooms to escort them outdoors and to the lobby of an adjacent hotel just to the north.

Hotel staff passed out bottled water to the students, who sat chatting. A deputy told the students that they were free to leave but could not retrieve their cars while deputies went room to room on campus. Once the all-clear was given, students and staff filed out.

Evisa Zyka was in class, taking a statistics test when the alarm sounded. “We did hear the announcement” and saw flashing lights, she said. “We were told to fortify the door and lock the door.”

After about 10 minutes, Zyka said police arrived to escort them from the building. No shots were heard, students said.

She said she stayed calm throughout the incident. “We have to be, I think, in these kinds of situations.”

Parents arrived at the Hilton Garden Hotel with concerned looks, often hugging their children.

“We’re here to get our daughter, but her car is on the far side of campus, so we’re trying to figure out to wait and let her get it or leave and come back,’’ said Steve Robinson, a parent who came to the hotel following a call from his daughter.

This story is courtesy of the Community News Collaborative, made possible by a grant from Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation.

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