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Tornado drill, fire drill -- and now hostage drill

Today, police teams and students at a Pinellas middle school add hostage situations to the events they must train for.

[Times photo: Lisa DeJong]
Other Tampa Bay area schools have staged drills, but the one set for Southside Fundamental today might be the most elaborate yet attempted in the region.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 24, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- For decades, students have practiced for worst-case scenarios -- crouching under their desks, covering their heads or rushing out of school in straight lines to avoid unthinkable terrors such as nuclear attacks, fires and tornadoes.

Today, students and teachers at Pinellas County's Southside Fundamental Middle School will take the fire and tornado drill to the next level -- a level forced on them by last spring's massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado.

About 7:50 a.m., St. Petersburg police officers will respond to a hostage situation in the school's main office. The department's elite response team will arrive in full gear and carrying weapons, but the guns won't be loaded.

Firefighters and paramedics will arrive on campus right after the police. Students will be locked in-side their classrooms, where they will be told to wait until police have "secured" the campus. Then, offi-cers will rush students outside.

"I would rather that kids not be exposed to violence either," said St. Petersburg police Chief Goliath Davis III. "But to the extent that we know that violence does occur time to time, I would also prefer that we acclimate kids to the type of mea-sures that have to be taken to protect them."

Since the Columbine massacre left 15 dead, school districts around the nation have rethought their security plans.

In Pinellas, every school has completed a crisis plan, making such decisions as where students would evacuate and how parents would be notified. All plans have been critiqued, and Campus Police Chief Joseph Feraca has told each school to put its plan to the test.

Many schools around the Tampa Bay area have staged drills, but the one set for Southside this morning might be the most elaborate yet attempted in the region.

Lewis Williams, an area superintendent who supervises Southside Fundamental and 36 other schools, acknowledged that the drill has made some people -- even himself -- somewhat uneasy. Some teachers, he said, worried that some students -- mostly 12, 13 and 14 years old -- are not emotionally mature enough to be confronted with such a realistic drill.

He said that one part of the drill that had worried some teachers -- use of a smoke bomb -- now won't happen. Officials determined it would be too distracting and might alarm nearby residents.

"This simulation is as close to the real thing as we've seen," Williams said. "Regardless of how we prepare, it won't guarantee any results, but we'll be in a better posture to do the prudent thing by having a plan."

School Resource Officer Jane Story said this drill will be just like a fire drill, adding that she doesn't think it will be traumatic for the school's 650 students.

"It's a drill for the school people, not to alarm anybody," Story said. "We don't have this much publicity and commotion for a fire drill. Why? Because it's been done in the past."

Principal Tom Jones did not return a call seeking comment. In a letter to parents explaining the drill, Jones wrote that the goal is to prepare students by having them participate in "as much a real life experience as possible."

Phones will be working for emergencies, his letter says. There will be no access to the building, at 1701 10th St. S, between 7:50 a.m. and 10 a.m., when the drill should be over. Jones has asked parents not to drop off or pick up their children between those times.

Three teachers at Southside have called their union representatives, criticizing the drill and talking about staying home from school.

"We've obviously had people very concerned about it, but we certainly wouldn't endorse walking out or anything like that," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "I'm not so sure that a practice exercise involving real live students is what I would recommend, but I am not an expert."

Is this drill too much -- too real, too scary -- for students? Chief Feraca doesn't think so.

"It's very important that we include students," Feraca said. "Putting our heads in the sand and saying it couldn't happen here is the worst thing we can do. We have to be prepared."

Feraca also points out that the district has staged intense drills before. Last year, during a mock tornado touchdown at Mildred Helms Elementary School in Largo, students pretended to be hurt and one pretended to have died.

St. Petersburg officers, campus police and administrators will study the drill to find out how Southside's crisis plan can be improved. Not only will this analysis help Southside, police said it could provide important lessons for safety at other schools.

"As a parent, I am fine with it," said Royd Whedon, who has an eighth-grade son and is co-chairman of Southside's school advisory council. "In light of the things that have been happening around the nation, anything we do to safeguard our children is a good thing."

Sue Crawford has mixed feelings.

She understands why preparation is important, but worries how younger students will react.

"I think it's very scary for the children," said Crawford, who has an eighth-grade daughter.

School Board member Susan Latvala said her first reaction is one of sadness that schools need to prepare for violence.

"I think most parents would prefer that their kids would not have to be introduced to this," Latvala said. "But on that slight chance that this could happen, wouldn't they want to know that their schools have a plan?"

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