HOMER CITY — Sandy Hook. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Schools that need no introduction thanks to the horrible tragedies that befell them.
An armed individual in a school with the intent to harm is a parent’s worst nightmare. The threat of loss of life alone is enough to permanently damage a community, but too often the aftermath comes as an afterthought. Direction of response teams, management of the wounded, both physically and mentally, and recovery of both the victims and their families take a back seat to the unfolding drama of an active school shooting.
In an attempt to open a discussion of the many facets of a school shooting, the Indiana County Health and Human Services Subcommittee presented a school shooting trainer seminar to Indiana County educators on Wednesday at the Homer-Center High School.
“The training that we provided today is an ongoing process for the HHSS who work under the offices of the county Emergency Management Agency to provide planning and training for emergency preparedness in the community,” said HHSS Chairman Danny Sacco during a news conference at the school. “This particular program we’ve provided today is offered to educators, administrators, teachers, school officials, to provide information and training in terms of a response should a school shooting occur in their facility.”
The training was an all-day affair with speakers representing different agencies and corporations from around the county touching on eight separate topics related to handling an active shooter incident.
The training opened with a staged video of a potential school shooting. In the video, a disruptive student is sent from his classroom to the principal’s office. But the student makes a stop at his locker to retrieve a gun, shoots the teacher who removed him from class, then begins roaming the halls looking for his next victim.
“I asked (the attendees) to keep (this video) in mind, this is your scenario for the day,” said Michael Schmidt, a retired 25-year veteran of the Pennsylvania State Police. “This is what I want you to think about for today, and all the rest of the things you hear, put yourself in this position. This is my school; do I know what to do?”
As a state trooper at the Indiana barracks, one of Schmidt’s duties was to coordinate the annual school shooting drills, where troopers would come to a school and practice their tactics for responding to an active shooter incident. Occasionally, a district would supply teachers to work with the officers during the drill.
“It became quite apparent that there was a disconnect between the school districts and law enforcement,” he said. “We were expecting things from them that they did not know we were expecting from them. So even though they practiced their lockdown drills and their procedures and we practiced ours, meshing them together was an issue.
“So this is our attempt at bridging that gap, and getting teachers and law enforcement together, getting us all on the same page.”
The approximately 375 attendees filled the school’s auditorium to hear speakers touch on topics like defense and countermeasures, casualty management, fatality management, psychological management, agency response and coordination, media management, recovery and prevention. The speakers represented a multitude of disciplines from around Indiana County, from agencies like the state police, county coroner’s office and the Emergency Management Agency to Indiana Regional Medical Center, Community Guidance Center and Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
The speakers wanted their audience to be sure they knew that they were only scratching the surface of these topics, and that additional training would be needed to truly grasp every subject.
“Here, we’re just trying to whet their appetite,” Schmidt said. “We’re just trying to get them to move to a more tactically thinking perspective. Even though they’re in the school, to understand that this can happen here and it will happen here if you don’t keep your eyes open and look for the warning signs.”
Schmidt explained that the Indiana County Public Safety Academy can offer further education to anyone seeking it. One of the goals of the trainer was to get feedback from the attendees and see what subjects they were interested in learning more about so programs could be created at the academy.
Attendees’ response to the presentation was positive.
“I like the presentation that they’re doing so far,” said Bill, whose last name was withheld by request, of Homer City, whose wife works at the school. “They’re covering a lot of bases, especially for the teachers.”
“It has been very interesting,” said Melanie Williams, a life skills student paraeducator. “I’m so glad they did something like this. They should do it every year, and maybe move it around.”
“This is a tough subject,” said Mark Newquist, a health and physical education teacher at Indiana Area High School. “Everybody wants to know information about it, but you don’t know what to ask, you don’t know who to ask. By giving us these different agencies in town, I think that’s really important to know where you can turn and how to set things up and have people come in and tell you.”