Safety in the spotlight at rural summit

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By Alice Du Pont


Ever wonder how Gadsden County would handle a crisis of the same or worse magnitude as Newtown at Sandy Hook Elementary School or in Dale County, Ala., when a child was taken off the school bus and held hostage for nearly a week?

“There is no way to anticipate when something like these two incidents will happen. All you can do is make yourself, your departments and partners aware and develop some strategies. That’s what we’re doing with this second annual Rural County Summit. This one is on school safety,” said Maj. Shawn Wood, Emergency Management Director for Gadsden County.

The first Rural County Summit in 2012 was geared toward mitigating the damages caused by hurricanes and other weather-related tragedies in rural counties and learning how to work together for the benefit of rural counties.

More than 100 sheriffs, police chiefs, school officials and emergency management directors are expected to attend the two-day summit at the Florida Public Safety Institute Conference Center on July 9 and 10.

Wood said experts in school safety have been assembled as well as people who were an integral part of responding to such tragedies as Sandy Hook active shooter, the Dale County, Ala., kidnapping and the 25-year-old case of a student killing a teacher and wounding an assistant principal in Pinellas Park.

“The presenters are the actual people who lived these tragedies. They are not in some classroom studying models; they were there on the front line,” Wood said.

Presenters include Lt. Christopher Vanghele of the Newtown Police Department who will discuss how his department responded to Sandy Hook School from the shooting through the funeral services and beyond. Lt. Paul Vance, a  public information officer with Connecticut State Police will talk about media relations.

Wally Olson, Sheriff of Dale County, Ala.; Lamar Brooks, associate superintendent with the Dale County Board of Education; and Agent Steve Richardson of the Federal Bureau of Investigation will discuss an incident in that county in which a young boy was kidnapped from a school bus. The child was held for a week before the incident was brought to an end after law enforcement officers stormed the bunker, killing the captor and rescuing the child.

Dr. Nancy Blackwelder will also share her story. On Feb 11, 1988, Blackwelder was working as the assistant principal at Pinellas Park High School when a gun-wielding student shot her and killed a physical education teacher. The incident rocked the education community. After her recovery, she recognized the need to evaluate crisis intervention plans and use the knowledge gained through her experience to help other educators.

She is currently an international staff development specialist and has provided training for organizations including the Attorney General, School Board Associations and Victim Advocate Association.

“This summit gives law enforcement and school administrators the opportunity to learn from emergency situations that have happened in other parts of the country,” Wood said. “Rural counties have their own unique characteristics and have different levels of resources and different assets. This summit is specific to the needs and resources of rural counties.”

The summit was the idea of Gadsden County Sheriff Morris Young. He worked in partnership with United States Attorney Marsh, the North Florida Regional Domestic Security Task Force and the Florida Department of Emergency Management to make the summit an annual training.

Unfortunately, the summit is not open to the public because of the security information that will be presented during the sessions.