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Mock hostage scenario on JU campus a “huge success” for safety preparation, raising awareness

By Phillip Milano

Making sure students, faculty and staff remain safe was the order of the day recently as campus security and Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office personnel worked together to defuse a mock “hostage situation” on JU’s grounds.

"Hostages" run to safety as part of recent JU training exercise

A call of “shots fired” came in to campus security headquarters at 10:02 a.m. Thursday, July 26, and by 1:20 p.m., a “gunman” at Davis Student Commons had been “eliminated” by SWAT officers.

Police gather near Command Post during the recent JU hostage training exercise

In between, dozens of JSO personnel, JU security force members and JU employees and students took part in the large-scale hostage training scenario.

“This is all designed to raise awareness among our students, staff and faculty, and to always be prepared in case anything were ever to happen,” said Derek Hall, Vice President of University Relations.

The goal, in light of increased campus shootings nationwide and made more timely by recent shootings in Colorado and locally at Episcopal High School, was to rehearse plans for real-life situations and enhance response efforts.

JU Director of Security Gordon Bass confers with a hostage negotiator during the recent training exercise.

“I’d call it a huge success,” said Gordon Bass, JU Director of Campus Security. “We were able to put our plan into action to protect lives and keep the campus community safe, and we gave awareness to JU staff and students about what can really happen. We also made many local JSO officers much more familiar with our campus. Heaven forbid something like this would ever happen, but they now have that much more understanding of our location.”

Natasha Harvey, JU Coordinator of Residential Life and a former track & field star for the University, runs to safety as a volunteer "hostage" during the recent training exercise on campus.

The scenario involving a disgruntled student shooting on campus required coordination among SWAT, campus security, hostage negotiators and administrators. Police vans, armored units and a command post rounded out the well-orchestrated response.

Katherine Thomas, a JU orientation coordinator and a senior majoring in political science, took part in the training as a hostage. She said she was glad she will be more engaged and aware if something ever does occur.

JU Vice President of University Relations Derek Hall expertly juggled media appearances during the day as the University held a hostage scenario for training purposes.

“The officers were really calm, and I learned to not be scared, but to be safe,” she said. “We heard the shots and ran under a table, and I was actually kind of scared. But it was amazing how quick the response was and how fast they began clearing the building.”

Brittani Wyskocil, a junior theater major and one of the hostages as well, was a bit nervous, too, leading up to the scenario.

“Especially when they showed me the empty gun,” she said. “It brings it home. But I’m glad for this opportunity. In case this ever happened, I’ll be well-prepared.”

Preparation of all responding law enforcement units is key to pulling something as complex as this off, Bass noted.

“Everything was a great success as far as the flow of information between and among us all,” he said. “Once the command post was set up and we were able to give JSO one of our own campus security radios, the communications improved even more so.”

Hall, who updated other administrators and helped keep local media up to speed during the training, agreed it was a great chance for everyone to brush up on response efforts.

“It’s incumbent on us to go through these exercises, to give our folks the experience they need and to help JSO become more familiar with aspects of our campus,” he said.