Sometimes, preparing to head back to the classroom means decorating bulletin boards and making sure all of the textbooks are ready and waiting.
At Philipsburg-Osceola Senior High School on Friday, it meant state police swarming through the building with rifles, looking to subdue an attacker.
The school was the site of an active shooter drill, utilizing the empty but school-ready building and district teachers acting as students. The goal was two-fold.
“We’re testing the cops, but we’re also testing your system,” said State College police Lt. Chris Fishel.
Fishel was steering the drill on the side of the attackers, played by Patton Township officers Tom Snyder and Tyler Jolley. Ferguson Township’s Jeff White was also on hand. The four officers are part of the Centre County SWAT team. They train to respond to major crisis events like a shooting or other active emergency, putting them in a unique position pretending to be on the other side.
“We try to keep as much realism as possible,” Fishel said.
That means real weapons, like the rifles the “bad guys” brandished in P-O’s hallways. The ammunition was blank, and fired in the building, but Fishel said they were fired upward, pointed at the ceiling to minimize any danger that even a blast with no bullet could produce. There is a way to muzzle the weapons, making the blanks even safer, but it isn’t used for exercises like this because it muffles the sound, and the sound of the weapons is what drives the simulation, elevating heart rates and creating the feeling of reality.
Three faculty members were selected to serve as the first victims, in the library with Snyder. As state police were entering the building, shots and shouts rang through the hall, pulling them toward the first location. Just in case that wasn’t enough, junior high Principal Kelly Rees, one of the injured, staggered out the double doors, pointing the way to the danger, just like a real victim might do, seeking help from first responders.
Then, as they secured that first scene, Fishel said the next step was a second jolt.
“There’s a tendency that after you secure that scene, there’s an adrenaline drop,” he said. To keep officers on their toes, and teach them that there is always more to secure, a second scene would immediately go into play. That had three more faculty being held in another room by Jolley. In that scenario, one hostage died, two others were seriously injured, and the goal was to see how officers responded.
Fishel wants officers in Centre County to know how to handle a tense situation as safely as possible for victims, officers and perpetrators.
The first drill tested their response to an “immediate threat of serious bodily injury,” meaning a shooter actively presenting a danger. In the second, the risk was “serious threat,” with the suspect putting his weapon down.
Inside the conference room, next to the computer room where the second scene was happening, administrators waited, listening to yelling, running feet and shots, sometimes loud, sometimes muffled. The second scene was secured with almost no sound, pointing to a safely resolved situation.
Assistant Principal David Simcox was serious about the drill, but just as serious about the aftermath.
“It can show holes so we can see what we need to fix,” he said.
Superintendent Gregg Paladina planned to sit down with officers and his staff after the training to see where the district could improve its policies and plans to make students safer and help police.