Summit for rural counties convenes

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By Alice Du Pont

“It’s probably the only summit of its kind in the nation” said Gadsden County Emergency Management Director Maj. Shaw Wood, referring to the second annual County Summit: School Safety and Emergency Management that got underway July 9 at the Florida Institute of Public Safety in Gadsden County. 

More than 300 sheriffs, police chiefs, firefighters, and school personnel are attending the summit and hearing from people who have lived through the nightmare of an active shooter on a school campus as in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting and a child kidnapped from a school bus as in Dale County, Ala.

“It was like a bad dream, you know, you just wanted to wake up,” said Wally Olson, Sheriff of Dale County, Ala. He was talking about the day an armed gunman boarded a Dale County school bus and took a 5-year-old boy hostage before killing the bus driver in the presence of other children. He held the hostage for nearly a week before the ordeal ended in the death of the kidnapper by agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, saving the life of the child. 

Olson, who has two children of his own, ages 2 and 7, said it could very easily have been his child on the bus that day. He and others are attending the summit to talk about their real-life experiences to law enforcement officers, educators and first responders in rural communities. Most are from North Florida, but the attendees come from all over the state and a few from South Georgia, according to Wood.

Lt. Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police said he had been called to help in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School murders when 20 students and six adults were killed in the quiet town.

“This tragedy struck everyone right here in the heart. This tragedy is something we can all learn from. All of the people will take away something,” he said.

People like Sandra Grant who, lives in Gadsden County, and is the assistant principal at Florida A&M University Developmental Research School. 

“They certainly gave me a lot to think about and to adjust my actions. You know you always look around or go to where the noise is coming from when you hear a loud noise at school. But you don’t think someone is breaking through your security precautions with the intent of harming children,” Grant said.

Vance was responsible for conducting media briefings in the hours and days that followed the murders. He said it didn’t matter what color the uniform was that people wore, only that everyone there was united and unique and did what they needed to do to save lives.

“What I saw isn’t anything anybody could ever prepare themselves for or that anybody could forget. It’s nothing you could ever describe or imagine,” Vance said.

Lt. Christopher Vanghele of the Newtown Police Department was on duty at that day and was one of the first to walk into the school with his weapon drawn. He said the mere presence of the police arrival made the shooter stop firing and take his own life.

“That, he said, saved hundreds of lives.” 

Sheriff Morris Young who is responsible, along U.S. Attorney Pamela Marsh for the summit, said there is no textbook for these situations.

“You have to hit the ground running. Things happen that you’re not trained for, he said.

The summit began with an emotional message from Gadsden County resident Cynthia Riley, who lost her daughter following a homecoming night at East Gadsden High School when a teenager in a stolen car sped through the parking lot, killing Riley’s 16-year-old daughter and injuring her as the two walked to their car. She said she wakes up at night wondering what she could have done differently.

“I’m here because,” she told the audience, “I don’t want what happened to my daughter to happen to another child. I don’t want what I feel to happen to another mother,” Riley said.

The summit will end Wednesday, July10.