ORLANDO -- Ever since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary last December in Newtown, Conn., schools and law enforcement have been taking extra measures to ensure schools are secure.
About 700 school resource officers and police officers from around the country, including Manatee County, are gathered this week in Orlando for the four-day National Association of School Resource Officers meeting.
The conference includes multiple training levels for school resource officers, as well as presentations and training from FBI agents and the Newtown Police Department on how to become more alert in protecting a school from armed intruders. The conference will include a simulated shooting exercise at Freedom Middle School in Orlando.
Ronald Hasko, assistant director for the FBI, said the live exercises at Freedom Middle School will help officers and officials understand what a school shooting looks like when they are in the midst of it.
"Situational awareness is often incomplete," Hasko said. "There is a fog as people are dying, and you don't know what the full situation is. It is sensory overload and very challenging."
Hasko said a shooting typically lasts 12 minutes or less.
Deputy Damon Ackerman, a school resource officer for Braden River High School, said the school district is working with law enforcement on an emergency plan for each individual school to handle situations such as a lockdown.
Don Hall, deputy superintendent of operations, said the Manatee School District formed a task force chaired
by Sally Hull, emergency management, safety and security supervisor.
"We will have a district emergency plan and review the school emergency plans slightly after the beginning of the school year," Hall said. "Each school already has plans, but these will be longer and will be more in-depth."
Ackerman said one of his biggest takeaways from the conference is to avoid rushing into a critical situation without knowing the details.
"Whenever we get a call from a classroom, we always go running in not knowing what's there, but we could be ambushed," Ackerman said. "We need to learn how to assess what we have before we go in the door. That's the main thing I want to discuss with administration."
Ackerman said it is important for school resource officers in Manatee County, or anywhere, to be aware of all activity on the campus.
"You can't put your mind on just one area," Ackerman said. "At any given time there are about 200 to 300 kids in the media center taking class and working on homework, there's a lot of activity in the front office and then you have the portables that are away from the main campus. You have to know what is going on at all times."
School security must be looked at from the perspective of crisis management.
"The school resource officer is the tip of the spear of law enforcement," Hasko said.
He equated protecting a school with providing security for a large gathering such as the Super Bowl or a presidential inauguration.
"School security is physical but also involves IT for Internet safety as well as planning and training in responding to a critical event, from a tornado to a flood to an armed intruder," Hasko said. "Plans and policies must be in place, and more broadly than locking the doors."
Hasko talked about the issue of gangs using social media to exploit children and even abduct students. Hasko said law enforcement and the FBI work hard to defeat gangs, but school resource officers should be aware of risky behavior and bring it to law enforcement's attention.
"The FBI is a finite organization doing many things so we need help from the community and our school resource officers," Hasko said. "Parents need to know how kids go missing -- not to scare them -- but to get their attention. Unfortunately, there are people looking to abuse children every day."
Conference presentations will include a history of shooting incidents from the past 10 years, including Columbine, Sandy Hook and the Aurora, Colo., theater shooting at the "Batman" premiere.
"We look at the arc of these incidents, the drivers of those involved and how to identify pre-planning and warning signs to get in front of the situation before it occurs," Hasko said.
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.