Inside a school lockdown drill: ‘Intruder in the building’
Just after 10 a.m. on a Thursday in April, a man in a dark hoodie and jeans walked into Greensburg Salem High School. He paced the halls carrying a baseball bat. Some students were in class, others played in the gym. Suddenly, an announcement blared over the loudspeaker: “Intruder in the building.”
Students and staff cleared the halls, ducking into classrooms and closets. They barricaded the doors with file cabinets and desks. They covered the windows. All was silent, except for the crack of metal-on-metal as the bat struck desks in the hallway. Greensburg Police rushed inside.
Minutes later, the incident ended. It was only a drill.
“I was kind of nervous, because I didn’t know where the shooter was at,” said 11th-grader Colleen Ankney.
She hid in the supply room of a science classroom as the mock-intruder, Greensburg police officer Jason Dieter, banged on doors and desks outside.
State law does not require school districts to carry out intruder drills. But some area districts like Greensburg Salem are opting to do them. Others, like the Allegheny Valley School District, have been participating in large-scale drills with local emergency responders for years.
“I just think it’s a great way to get everyone on board so that they have a plan in place,” said Scott Andrews, a sixth-grade teacher and a member of the Allegheny Valley School District Emergency Management Team, which works with school staff and local emergency management on safety plans.
Past drills have focused on evacuations, bus accidents and food borne illness, Allegheny Valley spokesperson Jan Zastawniak said.
In the wake of the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 people were killed, Pennsylvania legislators have introduced at least three bills that would mandate emergency drills.
Schools are currently required to hold at least one fire drill per month. In November 2017, language was added to the Pennsylvania School Code that allowed schools to replace one fire drill per year with a school security drill. Schools may choose whether the drill is conducted while classes are in session.
Greensburg Salem conducted another intruder drill with staff in March. Officers fired blank rounds in the hallway as teachers practiced the “ALICE” emergency protocol — alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate. The April drill marked the first time students participated in an intruder scenario, designed to test staff and students’ responses to an unknown person entering the school with the intent to harm people, Greensburg Salem Superintendent Eileen Amato said.
“We’re doing it in school today, but it’s really a skill for life,” Amato said.
Some students, like 11th-grader Hannah Morgan, said they felt better prepared. She hopes administrators will consider taking steps to make future drills feel “more realistic” by allowing officers to fire blanks in the hallway as they did during the teachers-only drill.
Morgan wants to do whatever she can to be prepared for the real thing.
Classmate Trey Reusser, also an 11th-grader, agreed. He said that he’s heard gun shots before.
“I hunt, so I’m kind of used to it,” Reusser said. But he’s never heard them reverberate inside a school and expects them to be louder.
Though Parkland heightened staff and students’ awareness of such scenarios, Amato said the drills were planned before the February shooting.
Drills like this could become more common. State Rep. Tony DeLuca, D-Penn Hills, introduced a bill earlier this month requiring districts to hold them every other month.
“I believe it’s critical that our schools are prepared in case of a tragedy, so that students know what to do, staff knows what to do,” DeLuca said.
Other new bills would add requirements that outline student and staff involvement as well as the types of scenarios schools must practice.
If not planned carefully, drills have the potential to cause more harm than good, according to guidance offered by the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association of School Resource Officers.
“You can traumatize people and scare them if they think it’s real,” said Katherine Cowan, director of communications at the National Association of School Psychologists.
Administrators should also consider making mental health professionals available to anyone who might feel uncomfortable following a drill, Cowan said.
Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, advised mastering a lockdown before attempting a large-scale drill.
“Otherwise, it will become something that will be frustrating to everyone,” Canady said.
A drill held Friday at Allegheny Valley simulated a shooter scenario at the district’s Springdale High School. An officer acting as an intruder used a starting gun to fire shots. Several police, fire and EMS units responded to the scene as if it was an actual emergency.
Though the drill was designed to test the responses of school personnel and emergency responders, about a dozen students and several teachers also signed up to participate. Several were transported to Allegheny Valley Hospital by ambulance. One person was taken by Life Flight.
Friday was a teacher training day, so classes were not in session.
The goal was to test how well students reacted under pressure, Superintendent Patrick Graczyk said.
The district recently started reviewing ALICE with staff and students during fire drills, but they haven’t participated in an intruder drill, Graczyk said.
“Hearing the gun shots, I just went into emergency mode,” said Gabby Yost, an 11th-grader. She worked with classmates and teachers to barricade the door to a classroom with desks and a filing cabinet. A teacher used a belt to secure the door. Yost hid under a desk in the corner of the room as a teacher shielded her with her own body, waiting for officers to clear the room.
Zack Novich, a 12th-grader at Springdale, was in the hallway when the shooting started and chose to hide in a bathroom until it seemed safe to escape the building. He thinks these drills should be mandatory for all students, just like fire, bus safety and weather drills.
“This is just as bad,” Novich said. “There’s just as much potential for damage.”
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.