Heavily armed law enforcement officers searched an East-Central El Paso neighborhood while helicopters circled above during a massive response by local, state and federal officials to a report of a gunman at a school Friday.
Burges High, MacArthur Elementary-Intermediate and Scotsdale Elementary schools went into a security lockdown as a precaution in the Cielo Vista neighborhood.
The lockdown occurred the day after a shooting at a rural California high school and while the nation is still dealing with the aftermath of last month's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in which 20 children and six adults were killed.
No suspect was found Friday. El Paso Independent School District officials said that a review of campus security cameras found nothing wrong.
EPISD officials said the incident began just before 1 p.m. when a custodian reported seeing a suspicious man who might have had a gun outside a building on the campus of MacArthur Elementary-Intermediate School, 8101 Whitus.
The report of a possible gunman launched lockdowns at MacArthur and nearby Burges and more than a mile away at Scotsdale Elementary on McRae Boulevard.
During a lockdown, doors are locked, students are told to stay put and no one is allowed to enter or leave a campus. Schools created such security protocols after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.
Burges senior Denise de la Rosa, 17, was at lunch with other students in the cafeteria when the school went into lockdown and the cafeteria doors were locked. Students stayed in the cafeteria for about three hours until the end of the day.
"The teachers were telling us to keep calm," de la Rosa said. "At first it was fine. Once we started hearing the helicopters flying, it got a little tense."
Two helicopters were part of large-scale mobilization including dozens of police, state troopers, U.S. Border Patrol agents and agents from an FBI terrorism task force.
"We did a methodized search of the buildings and no suspects were found," EPISD police Chief Victor Araiza said.
Araiza also said that district police used a dog to sniff the buildings to detect the presence of any strangers, but the dog didn't pick up on any odd scent.
The thwup-thwup-thwup sound of helicopters filled the air for hours while authorities searched the surrounding neighborhood.
At one point, El Paso police checked a person in an alley behind the Walmart store at Cielo Vista Mall, and a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter hovered above.
Law enforcement officers with assault rifles searched at least two houses near Burges.
"You're stopping me 'cause I'm a black man with a beanie," an African-American man told police who stopped him near his home.
A police officer told the man that he was stopped because he matched the description of the suspect. The man then handed police his keys before FBI agents and state troopers in body armor and with rifles drawn entered a home on Morley Drive.
The man was temporarily handcuffed before being released.
Outside the schools, many parents arrived and waited nervously for their children.
"Fortunately, my children had access to cellphones and they were able to call me and tell me they were OK," said Yolanda Gonzalez while waiting for her son and daughter across the street from Burges.
"This is surreal after what happened (in Connecticut). I think that everybody that is here has that same thought going through your head," Gonzalez said.
"I have never had any problems with their safety at school. I'm glad we had such a quick response (by law enforcement). It's better to be proactive."
Gonzalez said she only learned about the lockdown from a friend who saw it on the news.
EPISD spokeswoman Renee De Santos said that parents were notified about the lockdown through a telephone messenger system but only after the lockdown was over to prevent trouble while the situation was active.
"At that point, we didn't have enough information to tell them," De Santos said. "We didn't want to cause a mass panic and have every parent come to the school."
School officials have previously advised parents that is it better for them to stay away from a school during a lockdown.
Despite all of the commotion, Burges sophomore Jose Quesada, 16, said he feels safe at school.
"I liked how they responded," he said. "We felt safe."
Daniel Borunda may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 546-6102. Adriana M. Chávez may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6117.
Times reporter Aaron Bracamontes and photographer Vanessa Monsisvais contributed to this report.