SEMINOLE — Osceola Middle School in Seminole was quiet Wednesday morning, apart from the occasional whir of a vacuum cleaner or the squeak of a locker being scrubbed for the hundreds of students coming back to school Monday morning.
But with a succession of firecracker-like pops, shrill screams and a stampede of students, the school turned into a scene from every parent's nightmares. Luckily, the school was filled with about 20 Pinellas County Sheriff's Office school resource officers and officers from the Largo and Gulfport police departments, running drills on how to prepare for the unthinkable.
School resource officers go through “active shooter training” at least once a year, though similar drills are ongoing and safety procedures are continuously updated, said Sgt. David DiSano, a spokesman for the sheriff's office. This year's drill seemed even more important, in the wake of the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and discussions moving the school district's internal police unit under the sheriff's control to save money and improve cooperation with law enforcement.
“Obviously, Sandy Hook weighs heavy on our hearts, but we learn from the tactics that worked and the tactics that did work,” DiSano said. “There have been some security changes to our schools after Sandy Hook, but one of the biggest challenges they face isn't just identifying a suspicious person on school grounds, it's becoming friends with the students and building that trust, because that's how you get your information and hear about what's going on.”
The resource officers didn't know what to expect from the 25 students that acted as shooters and victims during the training and were faced with everything from hostage situations and suicide attempts to mass shootings and interactions with plain-clothes police officers.
Kristine Crooks, an 18-year-old rising senior at Seminole High School, dodged paint-ball like rounds, fired deafening blanks at the resource officers and screamed through the hallways right on cue, memories that sometimes pop up when she's sitting in class.
The drills are just as realistic for the school resource officers, such as like Stephen Thomas. Stationed at Bayside High School in Clearwater for the past five years, Thomas left his career as player with the Tampa Bay Storm to become a role model for kids in need of structure, he said.
“Even when you've been doing this job for years, every day is different,” he said. “There are still practices that are changing and there are still tragedies that happen, but I'd do anything to protect my kids.”