Fernandina Police Work to Prevent School Violence

Submitted by Anne H. Oman

FBHS - School Police Officer
Detective Al Smith, FBHS School Resource Officer

A Reporter at Large

“Good  morning, Pirates,” greets Fernandina Beach High School Principal Jane Arnold.

It’s the last day of a four-day course on ensuring school safety conducted by the Fernandina Beach Police Department, the return of the freshmen, and some 250 ninth graders – plus a handful of upper classmen – stream into the cafeteria to hear Police Detective Al Smith tell them how to prevent school violence and keep themselves and their school safe.

“I’m not here to get you in the mindset of being paranoid.  I’m here to get you in the mindset of being prepared,” says Detective Smith, a genial 22-year veteran of the force who races motorcycles in his spare time.

PrintDetective Smith is a School Resource Officer, uniformed and armed, assigned full time to the school. According to Sharyl W. Wood, all Nassau County high schools have School Resource Officers, as do the middle schools in Yulee and Callahan.  Hillard Middle-Senior has one officer serving the combination school.

“We previously had an officer at Fernandina Middle, and it is being considered again,” she told the Observer.  She put the cost of funding officers at all of the county schools that don’t currently have them at $540,000 a year or more.

A spokesperson for the Florida Department of Education said there are no statistics on how many Florida schools have School Resource Officers because each district makes its own decision. In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut, some Florida politicians and school officials have called for an expansion of the program, citing the arrest of a 15 year old Tallahassee student with a gun by a School Resource Officer in December.  The National Rifle Association has called for armed guards in all schools.  Although he expressed skepticism about armed school guards, President Obama has proposed more federal aid to states to hire School Resource Officers as well as counselors and psychologists.

“You have to start accepting the fact that a potential violent attack could happen,” Detective Smith tells the students.  Some are fidgeting and some are whispering or putting on lipstick, but most eyes are on Smith.  “Last Friday in California a young man with a shotgun started shooting at students, and a teacher stopped him.  In one year, 102 guns were seized in Florida schools, and last year there was a shooting at Episcopal in Jacksonville.  The biggest mistake is to think it can’t happen here — we have to be prepared.”

Last March a fired employee shot and killed the headmistress of Episcopal High School in Jacksonville and then committed suicide.

“How many of you have flown on a plane?”

A lot of hands shoot up.

“It’s just like airline safety, when they tell you how to put on your oxygen mask.  Or fire drills.  Or lifeboat drills on a cruise ship,” he tells them.  “It’s not about scaring you guys.  It’s about planning and practice and prevention.  About two hundred potential shootings have been prevented since Columbine.  How many of you have heard of Columbine?”

Only a few hands go up.  The typical ninth grader was born in 1999, the year two Colorado high school boys shot and killed 12 of their fellow students and one teacher, then committed suicide.

Local police and education officials are currently developing an incident plan, detailing exactly what students, teachers and police will do in the event of a crisis.  The plan is expected to be finalized in the next few weeks, said Detective Smith.  Then there will be a series of practices and surprise drills.  But today’s emphasis is on preventing – rather than reacting to– violent incidents.

“School shootings are planned for months,” the detective tells the students.  “The Columbine kids planned for a year and a half.  I’ve studied school shootings, and fifty percent of shooters told two or more people of their plans in advance.  Eighty percent told at least one person, and all too often nobody says anything.  The Columbine kids told their friends not to go to school that day because something bad was going to happen.  Take it seriously.  Tell your parents, a teacher, the police.”

There is a Tip Line for reports of potential problems at the school, and Detective Smith asks the students to take out their cell phones and save the number.

“You’ll never be asked your name, and if you want to make sure you’re anonymous, just punch in *67 to block caller ID,” he says, as some students rummage in their backpacks for their phones.  “If there’s anything that makes you uncomfortable, report it to us, guys, and we’ll check it out.”

Later, Detective Smith tells a reporter that there have been many calls made to the Tip Line – none to report a potential shooting incident but one about a potential suicide.

“We were able to get the young man the help he needed,” he says.

A buzzer sounds to signal the next class , but Detective Smith isn’t finished.

“Can we hold them?” he asks Principal Arnold, who nods her assent.

“It’s not true what people say – that the person ‘just snapped,’” he continues.  “These things are planned – there are warning signs: anger, depression, talk of suicide, being the victim of bullying at school.  Someone may act a little different.  People make comments, and everyone laughs.  Sooner or later, the person becomes depressed or angry.  Don’t laugh.  Tell the person who’s making the comment to stop.”

The buzzer rings again, summoning students to Biology or Algebra or English, and Detective Smith quickly sums up: “Pay attention. It takes all of us to keep the school safe.”

“You have four minutes to get to your next class,” the Principal tells them, but four seniors, who have a little more time as they are in a special program at the hospital, agree to talk with a reporter.  Alison Mackie, Mary Summerlin, Jade Goldsmith and Savannah Edwards were all in fifth grade at Emma Love Hardee Elementary School when a tragic shooting occurred there, and the experience is still vivid in their minds.  In May 2006 a man shot three of his former relatives in the hospital parking lot, then headed for the school, where he shot himself in the head.  The school was put on lockdown and the children crouched under their desks.

“They wouldn’t let the parents in,” says Jade.

“The teachers were freaking out,” recalls Alison.

Mary says she was “shocked and saddened by the Sandy Hook tragedy – it was crazy.  They were so little.”

Could something like that happen here?

“I guess it’s possible,” she says.

But Detective Smith is determined that it won’t.

Says Principal Jane Arnold: “Our Fernandina Beach Police Department takes really good care of us.”

 Editor’s Note: Anne H. Oman recently relocated to Fernandina Beach from Washington, D.C. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Washington Times, Family Circle and other publications.

January 24, 2013 9:27 a.m.