Law enforcement, schools train for active shooter preparedness

OWEN WALSH
Posted 6/19/19

LAKE ARIEL, PA — Two disgruntled parents walk into an elementary school office. Children and Youth Services recently received a report about potential child abuse and began investigating the …

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Law enforcement, schools train for active shooter preparedness

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LAKE ARIEL, PA — Two disgruntled parents walk into an elementary school office. Children and Youth Services recently received a report about potential child abuse and began investigating the parents, who are now accusing the school of filing the report.

The principal, vice principal and guidance counselors try their best to de-escalate the situation by appealing to reason, but the parents are not calming down. Tensions rise to a fever pitch when the father pulls out a gun, takes the principal hostage and gains access to the rest of the school.

“Code red: Office,” is broadcast over the PA system and the school is locked down. Law enforcement is on its way.

This “active shooter scenario” was only a simulation at Evergreen Elementary School on June 11, but more than 300 participating law enforcement and Western Wayne School District employees treated it like a reality, so that if an actual situation like this unfolds, they’ll know what to do.

“We have to be prepared for the worst,” said superintendent Matthew Barrett. “We don’t want to be that way, we don’t want to operate in that manner, but we have to.” Barrett said this drill was the result of a recently formed safety committee made up of various building principals, directors and a school resource officer.

Tragedies such as the Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland shootings have made conversations about school safety a national priority, motivating school districts like Western Wayne to constantly reevaluate their security measures. According to the Center for Homeland Security and Defense, which defines school shooting incidents as “each and every instance a gun is brandished, is fired, or a bullet hits school property for any reason, regardless of the number of victims, time of day, or day of week,” there were 97 school shooting incidents in 2018, the highest count among available data since 1970.

Justin Pidgeon, principal of Evergreen Elementary, said that conducting drills like this is just one example of Western Wayne’s efforts to tighten up its security procedures and practices in recent years: implementing stricter guidelines for visitors, hiring school-resource officers who can move from campus to campus and installing security cameras that monitor buildings during and after hours.

“I don’t believe changes can be made to prevent the idea of an individual being an active killer, but rather being vigilant in monitoring visitors coming to the building. Also being progressive in safety procedures and practices to change with society,” Pidgeon said in an email to The River Reporter.

Consensus on the best strategy to use during an active-shooter situation has been one of those societal changes that the district has had to stay up to date with. The Department of Homeland Security and the FBI now recommend an approach called “Run, Hide, Fight.” First, determine if there is an accessible escape route to safety. If there is, evacuate the premises; if there is no way to escape, find a place to hide where the shooter is less likely to find you, be sure to lock and barricade the door; as a last resort, and only if your life is in imminent danger, attempt to disrupt or incapacitate the shooter.

“Up until very recently, we had been strictly: secure yourself in a secure area,” said Maria Miller, principal of Robert D. Wilson Elementary School, another elementary school in the district. She added that district teachers were recently shown a video on “Run, Hide, Fight” as part of training in preparation for this simulation.

As much as this drill was about training school staff, it was equally about training local law enforcement to respond to a situation they hope never occurs.

“It’s training that’s needed, we don’t like doing it, but it’s a necessary evil that we have to do,” said Steven Price, director of the Wayne County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) and member of the Northeast Counter Terrorism Task Force. Price was stationed outside of the school during the drill, providing teams with “Simunition,” non-lethal firearms used for training purposes.

Officers from the state police, sheriff’s department, Wayne County prison, PA Fish and Boat Commission, juvenile and adult probation were among the participants who got practice entering the active-shooter situation and neutralizing the threat.

Paul Semler, a school-resource officer with the district who helped organize and run the drill, said that they purposefully mix and matched agencies to form the three-or-four-person teams, because during a real scenario it’s very likely this would occur.

“You never know who is going to show or when,” Semler said.

Various emergency responders were also at the drill and practiced going into the school and transporting someone who had been “injured” as part of the simulation.

Miller said that teachers called the experience “eye-opening.” Semler and Price both said that it was also an educational opportunity for the various officers involved, noting that it was some participants’ first time training to respond to an active shooter.

Administrators are now collecting responses from employees and looking for ways to improve when they run the drill next, which Barrett said will most likely be sometime within the next two years.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect that the superintendent of Western Wayne is named Matthew Barrett. 

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