Pinellas County law enforcement is working alongside school staff and first responders to conduct active shooter drills in an effort to protect students from future school shootings.
The training sessions were included as part of several reforms passed by lawmakers following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, which claimed 17 lives.
As part of the reforms, law enforcement must take part in monthly drills with students and school staff to simulate active shooter and hostage situations.
“The unfortunate reality is that it is going to happen again. The question is, when and where? The most important question is, what are we doing differently than we were doing before to mitigate the harm?” Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.
Gualtieri has led the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission since 2018.
The recent training exercise involved members of multiple law enforcement agencies, first responders, teachers, school staff and students. It took over a year to plan the event.
Gualtieri said the purpose of the drills was to get the parties involved to cooperate efficiently.
“Every agency in this county, the Sheriff’s Office and the police departments put their personnel through active assailant training, but in that active assailant training, you’re not injecting into the scenario the stressors that we injected today,” Gualtieri said. “It’s important where you’ve got casualties, you’ve got people screaming, you’ve got wounds, you’ve got fire EMS components with rescue task forces trying to get people out.”
Those involved in the drill were instructed to treat it as if it was a real-life emergency and to operate at “full speed.”
The injuries were made to appear more life-like, and firearms used blank rounds to imitate the sound of real gunfire.
“You saw the deputies going through windows, you saw the firefighters and EMS personnel with the rescue task forces going through windows and carrying out casualties,” Gualtieri said at a press conference. “You couldn’t tell whether that was real or not. It all played out just like what you saw at Uvalde or Stoneman Douglas or Buffalo or wherever, you couldn’t tell the difference.”
The drill was organized in such a way that responding officers were not given any details of the event other than that it was a simulation.
This meant that officers had to make split-second decisions like they would in a real event to identify and neutralize shooters while protecting and evacuating bystanders.
First responders also were tasked with treating injuries and transporting the critically wounded by ambulance.
During the drill, the “shooter” attempted to enter a classroom by pretending to be a victim, banging on the doors and yelling for help. The teacher in the class did not engage with the shooter and did not open the door.
She passed the test.
Pinellas County Schools Superintendent Kevin Hendricks confirmed that the school staff was not prepped before the drill.
“Our staff didn’t know what was coming today. We went in surprised so that we could react accordingly with the staff that we have,” he said. “One of the things that we emphasize in all of these scenarios is prevention. We have worked a lot with Sheriff Gualtieri and his team on threat assessments, on See Something Say Something, the Sandy Hook Promise Act, Fortify Florida and using all of those things that we have so that we never get to this point today, but as we know, whether it’s a school, ballpark, or grocery store, we have to be prepared. That’s why we’re here today.”
“I think it was a success today. We put stress on the people who are responding. We stressed the system to be able to identify those areas that are good and also areas where there’s room for improvement,” Gualtieri concluded.