St. Johns County school officials, the Sheriff's Office, St. Augustine police and firefighters met Tuesday to talk about school security and safety procedures in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy.
The session was similar to ones that take place every couple months, but this one was scheduled in the wake of the recent massacre.
"It's just sickening in the pit of your stomach. There's nothing that I hear as superintendent that hurts me more," St. Johns County Superintendent Joe Joyner said of the tragedy. "You feel responsible, and these are precious, precious children, and for us there's nothing that touches us deeper."
A Sheriff's Office spokesman said procedures and policies are constantly being re-evaluated.
"It makes me feel safe because you're knowing you're not alone," Joyner said of the relationship between departments and emergency officials within the county. "Schools and school buildings, they can be vulnerable, but knowing that we have some of the best professionals in the world that are right here that are a call away or a radio call away that are going to be there and help us through this, it's a huge comfort for our schools and for me personally."
After the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office was one of the first to institute what's now called the "active shooter" response to such incidents. Deputies now do not wait for SWAT, as happened at Columbine, to respond. They are equipped with assault rifles and shotguns, and when called to a school, their goal is to make a quick entry to find the shooter.
"Many law enforcement officers could barely stand outside and follow their own policies. They wanted to go in and stop that," Sgt. Chuck Mulligan said. "It made more sense. We're here simply to stop the loss of life and to protect our public."
Emergency and school officials say that's exactly what they'll continue to do in hopes of preventing more devastation.
"We pride ourselves in protecting our kids, and Sheriff (David) Shoar has said numerous times that our other vulnerable aspect in our community is our seniors. Our kids and our seniors are our most vulnerable folks that we have in our communities, and it's our job to protect them in any way that we can."
All 34 schools in St. Johns County have had heightened police presence this last week before their holiday break.