Almost daily, news teams cover a threat of an active school shooter, and sometimes those threats become a reality. St. Mary’s County is not immune from this danger. Recognizing that, local agencies collaborated to make preparing for an active shooter or other catastrophic tragedy a priority.
On Thursday, March 30, several agencies gathered for table top exercises and a methodical discussion about what to do to prepare for an active shooter at a St. Mary’s County Public School. The day was led by the Emergency Services and Technology Emergency Management Coordinator, Gerald Gardiner.
“We put together a scenario to discuss what everyone should be doing if the event took place,” said Gardiner. “The purpose of the exercise was to take a critical look at our response plans and procedures and to determine where we need to improve.”
The exercise which included Sheriff Tim Cameron and members of the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office; Superintendent Scott Smith; multiple principals, educators, and counselors with the St. Mary’s County Public Schools; Maryland State Police; representatives from the FBI; and representatives from state emergency management organizations.
“Unfortunately, a tragedy like this could occur here in St. Mary’s County,” said Sheriff Cameron. “In the event, this happens, training together will mean we will work better together. It’s no different from our Emergency Services Team or our K-9 Unit that trains together regularly. We are doing the same thing here, establishing good working relationships to understand each agency’s role and how those roles will all fit together.”
The exercise divided the groups into sections that focused on communication to parents, the media, and residents during the event; the law enforcement response; and reunification. During an active event, the reunification center is where parents can reunite with their children. St. Mary’s County Public Schools Superintendent Scott Smith established a reunification committee that offered a unique perspective on the training.
"The Reunification Committee is tasked with reviewing best practice and proposing a plan for reuniting students with their parent(s)/guardian(s) following the event of a school tragedy. The opportunity to collaborate with local, state, and federal experts on responding to crisis situations was highly beneficial in the drafting of a cohesive reunification plan. We are fortunate to live in a community where all stakeholders are committed to the well-being of our students, parents, and staff. " said Amanda Knobel, St. Mary’s County Public Schools counselor.
After each table had explained its response in this situation, the moderator gave discussion time for different organizations to make recommendations and pose questions to the other tables.
The exercise is an extension of an active shooter drill that took place at Great Mills High School last year that was evaluated by multiple experienced individuals who are subject matter experts in the event of an active shooter. They graded agencies on their responses to the media, the law enforcement response, and reunification efforts. The constructive criticism was then used at the tabletop exercise held recently to improve efforts. The scenario presented to the participants was that of a disgruntled parent who came to a local high school, Great Mills, and opened fire, injuring and killing multiple students and teachers before killing himself.
The event concluded with a mock press conference led by the sheriff’s office Public Information Officer, Jennifer Stone, and Sheriff Cameron with additional speakers including Bob Kelly, Director of Emergency Management and Technology; Lt. Tom White, Commander of the Maryland State Police; Superintendent Scott Smith; and the Southern Maryland Field Representative for the FBI.
“Drills and exercises are essential for all our community partners; the lessons learned and partnerships that are strengthened as a result of the time spent training to make us better prepared to respond to events that may affect St. Mary's County.” Bob Kelly, Emergency Services, and Technology Director. “We still have progress to make, but we [St. Mary’s County] are in a good place.