ORANGE PARK — As they hope and pray it never happens, Clay County school staff, first responders and community mental health workers Monday trained to help students and parents after a mass shooting.
The all-day tabletop exercise brought together 360 personnel from 15 county agencies.
They included school district police officers, principals, school counselors, psychologists and transportation personnel. In addition, Clay sheriff’s deputies, county Fire Rescue personnel, emergency management staff, Orange Park and Green Cove Springs police officers, and the district’s community mental and behavioral health services partners took part. Also participating were state and St. Johns County emergency management officials.
The training was the second phase of an active shooter exercise held last year by the district in conjunction with the Clay County Emergency Operations Center, said John Ward, director of operations, safety and security for the school district.
Ward, the former county emergency management director, said last year’s deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland tragically illustrates the evolving need for such training.
Monday’s training is part of a multi-year program that Ward handled when he was county emergency management director.
The risk of an active shooter has been under discussion and the subject of training since 2013 as Clay County works to be as prepared as possible if an incident happens, Ward said.
“This now is taking it from the active shooter, the threat has been neutralized, and now we have to get the kids back to the families in an organized fashioned,” Ward said of the reunification training exercises held at Ridgeview High School in Orange Park.
Reunification won’t be an easy process, Ward said, because there will be a lot happening at the school.
“We’ve got to move the children from the school to the reunification site wherever that might be, and then get whatever interviews might need to be done from the law enforcement perspective. Then you’ve got parents who obviously are very upset and want to get to their kids,” Ward said.
Part of the reunification process will include procedures ensuring the parent/guardian is the appropriate person to release the child to in the aftermath, he said.
Also crucial is making sure traumatized students and parents have access to mental health services as part of the reunification process, he said.
“The good guys with the guns are always going to get the bad guy. But it’s really the reunification portion and then the behavioral health aspect of it that is important,” Ward said.
Superintendent Addison Davis the district must be prepared. Its response and reunification plans must be proactive and reflect the changing risks.
“If we were ever exposed to an unfortunate situation, every agency within our county needs to understand their roles and responsibilities,” Davis said. “Today is an opportunity for us to plan and problem solve, and for us to unite to fully understand our next steps.
Davis said the biggest thing they want to understand is “we have to get our children to a safe place at the same time as our employees.”
Each school has multiple reunification sites available with personnel waiting to help the children and adults. Which one is used depends on the event’s circumstances of the event. The district will route children and staff to the safest possible site, Davis said.
“We will be met there by parents who are emotional and we’ve got to be able to problem-solve with that and to have systems and processes in place where our parents feel comfortable to accept their children and for us to be able to release them in a safe and professional manner,” Davis said.
Davis said district leaders, school counselors, communications, county emergency management, law enforcement and fire and rescue personnel among other authorities will man the reunification sites.
“We will have every hand on deck in this community there,” Davis said.
In another school safety matter, the district’s newly minted police department will be ready and on duty when class resumes after the summer break.
The district has hired full-time officers to fill positions at all 42 public schools plus some supervisory/leadership positions. The officers currently are undergoing training, district officials said.
Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075