Penns Valley

Active shooter drill staged at Penns Valley Area High School

Law enforcement officers search the halls of Penns Valley Area High School for “suspects” during an active shooter full-scale exercise June 10, 2014. Centre County law enforcement along with other personnel participated in the exercise.
Law enforcement officers search the halls of Penns Valley Area High School for “suspects” during an active shooter full-scale exercise June 10, 2014. Centre County law enforcement along with other personnel participated in the exercise. CDT photo

Seven shots echoed through the hallways at Penns Valley Area High School.

Yelling. Silence. One long minute. Four more shots. Nothing.

The school was the scene of a Centre County Emergency Management Agency exercise Tuesday designed to prepare first responders for violence in a school setting.

The real-world drill was designed to save lives in the worst-case scenario — such as the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook and Tuesday at a school in Troutdale, Ore.

In the best-case scenario, it is valuable training that will never be used at all.

Like any other day

At 7:30 a.m., the area outside the front doors of the school looked like it would on any other day, with milling crowds preparing for the day. But these “students” were really teachers and other staff. They were volunteering to play the part of children.

Around 8 a.m., everyone was in the auditorium. It was a typical assembly, chattering in the seats as the presenters got down to business. EMA Director Randy Rockey spelled out the ground rules. Participants were to do whatever they thought their students would do in the situation. Scream if it felt right. Cry if it seemed appropriate.

By 8:30 a.m., people were staging in their classrooms. It started to seem real. Nerves began to show.

In the office, people wondered about their roles. Where should they hide during a lockdown? In the hallway, volunteers who were portraying shooting victims, complete with carefully made-up wounds, were being put in position.

At 8:38 a.m., the first shots rang out. In classroom 24, near where two victims were situated, teachers pretending to be seventh-grade math students were emotional. Some cried. Some consoled. For an hour, they sat in the dark, behind a locked door, waiting for rescue. At one point, someone came by, turned the knob, looked in through the glass and moved on.

It was 9:42 a.m. when state troopers and sheriff’s deputies unlocked the door, coming in with handguns and automatic weapons to escort the “students” to safety, passing ambulances being loaded with gurneys.

The scenario played out

The exercise was not just about training the officers who took down the gunmen or secured the hallways.

It wasn’t even about drilling with the teachers on the lockdown procedures or the paramedics on dealing with traumatic injuries. The point was the entirety of it.

The scenario was complete from beginning to end.

A command post was established at Salem United Church of Christ, just down the road. Evacuees were taken to safety across the street at Penns Valley Elementary. Trooper Jeff Petucci, state police at Rockview’s public information officer, was available as a press contact for information as it became available. A school district official was designated — planning for notifying parents, making pickup arrangements, contacting the school board. A helicopter was on standby to transport one of the seven “injured” volunteers, although weather prevented an actual flight. The coroner’s office recovered the bodies of the two shooters and one victim.

It was also a first. Rockey said that live weapons have never been used in drills in Centre County before. The rounds were blanks, and many of the law enforcement weapons were secured with zip-ties to render them safe, but they were real.

Fears for future

As prepared as everyone was, some people were concerned about what the huge drill, and publicity about it, could mean for the future. The teachers pretending to be math students wondered if media coverage would just dare someone to test the school’s preparedness.

Superintendent Brian Griffith said the planning for this drill began after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, with the idea to test protocols and procedures. At the same time, he doesn’t want everyone to know what those measures are.

“We don’t want anyone to know how a lockdown is run,” he said, because that element of secrecy might be necessary to save student or faculty lives someday.

Petucci, however, is not worried about people knowing about the operation.

“You send a message that we are prepared,” he said.

He is also glad to have this kind of opportunity to train.

“Practice makes perfect,” Petucci said. “It’s better to learn with a simulation than to face it in real life.”

Lori Falce can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @LoriFalce.