CLAY COUNTY, Fla. - Many parents who were caught up in the panic and chaotic scene that unfolded Friday night during a football game at Oakleaf High School said they are angered by the prank.
Around 9 p.m., the football field and stands cleared as people ran out of the stadium, thinking that gunshots were being fired.
Witnesses said they were scared and ran for their lives, but it turned out their fears were unfounded.
A criminal investigation is now underway to figure out who began to shout "run" at the high school stadium, prompting people to clear the stands.
Clay County police said an unrelated social media threat and students "trying to play a practical joke" called 911 and falsely reported that shots had been fired but said that was not true.
Deputies responded as a safety precaution, and the game resumed about 9:40 p.m., with Oakleaf High getting a 26-7 win over Ed White High School.
But during the news briefing about 11 p.m., Clay County school leaders said 911 calls were made after students started running out of the stadium.
"The 911 calls actually came in after the fact, after the students started running out of the stadium," Lt. Steve Mills, with the Clay County District Schools Police Department, said. "I was on the property. There was no gunfire heard."
Investigators told News4Jax they saw three to four young people running for the gate and heard students yelling to run.
At least three students got minor injuries while people were clearing the stands.
Police believe students in the stands took advantage of the shooting rumors to play a prank.
"I just want the students to know these Facebook rumors have to stop. They have to stop. Cut it out. Like the superintendent said, we can't end even come out on a Friday night and have a good time because these Facebook rumors got around and a few students trying to play a practical joke," Mills said.
News4Jax crime and safety analyst Ken Jefferson has his own take on the situation.
"You got a lot of cowardly copycats. Sometimes these sick-minded individuals get a thrill out of seeing how people are going to respond, how they're going to react," Jefferson said.
Clay County District Schools Director of Operations, Safety and Security John Ward said there was already heightened anxiety due to a broad threat on Facebook Live, which is why school leaders believe disorder ensued when a group of students started running toward the gate.
"(A sergeant) heard students say, 'Run,'" Mills said. "You got to understand, the rumor was floating around the whole stadium tonight about these threats. And so, I think some students preyed on that."
As a result, some people were injured as the crowds rushed out of the gates.
Though the threat was not directly related to Oakleaf High, according to Ward, school police had stepped up security measures at the homecoming game by adding more officers.
Clay County Superintendent Addison Davis stressed that there was not a weapon on campus and there was never an immediate threat.
"The only threat was a potential action that was immature by a couple of youngsters that ran into a gate and created disorder. From my side, it's sad that we have to experience this these days," Davis said. "As a community, we have to get better. In a sense, we think causing disorder and causing disruption is amusing. It is not."
School leaders said there were three minor injuries reported and there is an active investigation into the scare.
Steve Bute brought his 5-year-old son to the game. It was homecoming night and was meant to be a time for fun and reflection, but all that changed.
"It was third quarter, just after halftime. They just presented homecoming court. We were up in the back row of the visiting bleachers, and we looked up, and suddenly it got really quiet and the teams were leaving the field and the PA announcer came on and said they were assessing the situation and they weren’t sure what was going on," Bute said.
There was a lot of talk about guns, and Bute said he and his son, Logan, panicked.
"Next thing I knew, students were getting down on their bellies. I instructed him to do the same. I had him lie flat on his belly. I kind of just laid over the top of him, and I just kept my head up looking and listening," said Bute.
He said when it quieted down, he and his 5-year-old son ran to his car. "He was very scared, hanging onto me. He was very nervous. I didn’t know the situation at the time, so I was scared, as well. You’re trying to find your car, not knowing what was happening and also dragging a 5-year-old behind you," Bute said.
He said he's grateful that there wasn't a shooter but he's angry with the pranksters.
"I am angry about the dismissiveness from people once it came out that it’s a hoax. I feel like a lot of people are eager to get back to their daily lives. It’s a hoax by definition, but it is not funny. There’s a lot of people who left the stadium in a panic. There are people who got hurt and trampled. There are kids. Not just high school kids," Bute said. "I saw a lot of young kids here, and they’re scared and there was panic. They are traumatized by this. And that’s not going to go away quickly. Yes, it was a hoax, but it’s not funny."
Freshman Kalynn Oliver was at the game for ROTC.
"Everyone was saying, 'Shooter,' and everyone was saying, 'Run,'" Oliver said.
She recalled running toward the school building along with other students.
"Everyone started crying, panicking, because their family was in the bleachers, and they were just freaking out because they thought there was a shooter," Oliver said.
"We all got out of there because we really didn't know what was going on, and then we had heard there was someone there that was armed," Mallory Avery said.
Less than 24 hours after the false report and chaos, Oliver and her classmates were celebrating at the homecoming dance, still feeling shaken from Friday night's game.
"It was just really scary in that moment," Oliver said.
The investigation remains active. So far, no arrests have been made.
The Knights hosted the Commanders on what was already a somber night in Clay County. Before the game kicked off at 7 p.m., there was a moment of silence in memory of Oakleaf High student Keondre Moss, who was killed in a car crash earlier this week.
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