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West Orange Times & Observer Thursday, Jul. 25, 2019 3 months ago

Orange County Public Schools hosts two-day emergency training exercise

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Local first responders and schools had a chance to practice their capabilities during an active-assailant scenario and a reunification exercise.
by: Tim Freed Managing Editor

Orange County Public Schools is preparing for a day it hopes will never come.

First responders from Orange County, Ocoee, Orlando, Winter Garden and Windermere took part in a two-day emergency training exercise hosted by Orange County Public Schools — an effort to help better prepare police, fire rescue and schools for school shootings and other emergencies.

It all began with a public safety drill Wednesday, July 17, at Windermere High School, where first responders reacted to an active assailant scenario. Actors, school administrators and principals played the roles of teachers and students in class, while an OCPS District Police officer acted as an assailant armed with an automatic firearm that shot blanks.

The scenario involved the assailant wounding a student resource officer in the school’s courtyard before making his way through several floors of a classroom building.

Within 10 minutes, first responders entered the building, rescued and treated wounded students and teachers, and neutralized the assailant.

“This is the first time we’ve done a full-on, full-scale active-assailant drill,” OCPS Chief Communications Officer Scott Howat said. “The goal today was really preparedness, to test our capabilities, to see where our strengths and weaknesses are and where we need to improve. … This is all about testing capabilities and making sure we are ready for the unthinkable.”

Just a 10-mile drive away from Windermere High, Dr. Phillips High School is sifting through what it learned as a result of the drill.

Principal Suzanne Knight said it was eye-opening to act as a student during the active-assailant scenario — and that the exercise gave her and her administrative team plenty to think about moving forward with their approach to lockdowns.

“We talk about what we would do and ‘here’s the plan,’ but as the presenters shared — which came to be true — you really don’t know what you’re going to do until it actually happens,” Knight said. “It was really weird and intense when we heard the shots. We didn’t react how we had planned to. … It gave me a different perspective than being the principal, like what do my teachers (and students) go through when we had to go into a lockdown?”

La Donna Johnson, left, guided "evacuated students" coming off the bus during the reunification exercise.

A student-reunification training exercise took place the following day on Thursday, July 18, at Ocoee High School, where actors and administrators posed as students arriving at a designated reunification point following an evacuation.

At the beginning of the school year, students fill out blue information cards that include details like the student’s name, the student’s grade, the parent or guardian’s name and emergency contacts. 

When parents arrive at a reunification site to pick up their students after an emergency, they’re required to fill out a similar white card, which is then cross-referenced for safety and security purposes.

Actors and administrators also took on the role as parents picking up their students during the July 18 drill, giving OCPS a chance to test their reunification process in a realistic scenario. 

West Orange High School Principal Bill Floyd recalls just a few years ago in 2013 when a student was shot at his school at the bus loop during dismissal. There wasn’t any kind of OCPS reunification plan in place then, he said.

Seeing a new plan at the OCPS level being developed brings Floyd a sense of confidence and comfort, he said.

“In 2013, we were essentially left to our own to figure out how to handle a situation of that nature as a receiving center,” Floyd said. “We had minimal help but absolutely nothing like what I’m seeing today (at the reunification exercise).

“We’re a thousand times better equipped now. … God forbid it ever happened, we would be prepared,” he said.

Orange County School Board Chair Teresa Jacobs remembers the 2013 incident as well, having served as the Orange County mayor at the time.

“Until very recently, we never dreamed in this country we would have to practice for these things, but we do,” she said. “It’s getting it right at this part of the process that matters. … Never be blindsided — I think the district is leading the way when it comes to this and I think that parents and citizens across the county should be very, very proud.”

Tim Freed is the Managing Editor for the West Orange Times & Observer and the Windermere Observer. He previously spent six years covering the Winter Park/Maitland area and is a graduate of the University of Central Florida....

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