By Danielle Dodder
“It was creepy,” describes Captain Dave Baer as he developed a school violence training scenario that turned into a prophetic one. Four days before multiple area agencies converged on the Tommie Barfield/MICMS campuses to play out a response to a father resolving a custody dispute by trying to forcibly remove his children from school, the tragically real version happened at High Springs Community School in Alachua County, Florida.
Voted the ‘Friendliest Small Town’ in Florida, High Springs has a population of about 5,000 and draws tourists to its high-end outdoor recreation. On May 18, a 63 year- old disgruntled grandfather was turned away from the school and returned with a gun. The school resource officer and a sheriff’s deputy shot and injured the man. No children were harmed during the incident.
According to the Department of Justice, the overall rate of school violence has declined. Nonetheless, the spectacularly awful shootings that have occurred happened in suburban, smaller environments. Thus, the Collier County School District has an on-going policy of readiness, and at its behest the Marco Island Police Department pulled together the practical exercise, which Baer described as “not unlike climbing a mountain.”
One hundred and fifty were involved in the May 19 drill after students left the campuses for early release. “It was a huge logistical undertaking,” adds Baer. In addition to the MIPD and fire rescue departments, the Collier County Sheriff’s Office and even the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWCC) participated. “They are frequently on the island,” Baer explains. And during such an emergency, the island would draw upon all the resources available.
Volunteers from Gulf Coast High School, the Marco Police Foundation, Winterberry Christian Academy and the Community Emergency Response Team played the roles of victims, terrified students and parents, and the perpetrator.
“The idea was to test the responders, to create stressors. Seeing kids ‘hurt’ makes the officers think.” None of the officers knew what would happen, says Baer, who hoped that the staged chaos would reveal responders’ strengths and weaknesses, and give teachers a realistic view of what would happen.
TBE principal Dr. Jory Westberry points out that the elementary and middle schools have already conducted joint lock down drills and she believes that practice and preparation are the keys to ensuring staff and student safety in the face of an emergency. The training exercise yielded helpful analysis and evaluation. She adds, “We were very impressed with the communication between law enforcement agencies and EMS. Their training was very evident during the drill and it reassured us that we’ll be in capable hands should the need ever arise, and we hope it never does.”