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Clairton school prepares for 'nightmare' with active-shooter drill

| Saturday, April 6, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
During an active shooter drill at Clairton Education Center on Friday morning, assistant principal Debra Maurizio runs to safety while informing police that shots have been fired.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
During an active shooter drill at Clairton Education Center on Friday morning, teachers play the roles of frightened victims as police attempt to identify the suspect.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Clairton officer Dan Eberman leads the second entry team in an active shooter drill at Clairton Education Center on Friday morning.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Pleasant Hills officer Matt Plunkett leads the first entry team in an active shooter drill at Clairton Education Center on Friday morning.

It's a nightmare situation that has played out too many times over years.

An unknown gunman enters a school and starts shooting whoever crosses his path. Teachers and students trapped inside are overwhelmed with panic and uncertainty, and responding police are presented with a myriad of tactical challenges as they hurry to end the rampage.

A mock version of a mass shooting played out at Clairton Education Center Friday morning as regional police departments and school employees participated in a training session on how to deal with such an emergency. It was a scheduled in-service day for teachers and administrators, so Clairton students were not present.

“It just goes so fast,” said reading teacher Maria Suss, who in one of two practice scenarios played the role of an escaping teacher. Though it was only a drill, she was visibly rattled upon making it out to the school parking lot and speaking with the training officers.

Suss said the lessons of the morning hit close to home because the staged shooting unfurled in her real-life classroom.

“We had to run past (the shooter),” she said. “It was stressful.”

Stressful but also informative.

Suss and her counterparts learned they need to get a good description of the shooter's physical appearance and weapons for police. Another tip they received was to zigzag as they run to safety, rather than run in a straight line because the latter makes them an easy target.

Middle school teacher Linda Withrow said one of the toughest lessons for her was that protective doors should stay locked even if a child is heard crying on the other side because opening it could endanger everyone on the other side.

“You have to leave him out there because you're thinking of the safety of many over one,” she said. “It's very hard to do.”

Police participating in the session presented by Command Excellence LLC of McDonald said the drill was valuable.

McKeesport police Officer Eli Tubin said it gave him and police in surrounding communities an opportunity to practice skills and learn the ins and outs of a school they would not otherwise have the chance to visit. Tubin noted that if a real emergency occurred at the Clairton school, his department would be dispatched to the scene.

“I'd like to see McKeesport maybe host something like this,” he added.

Clairton police Chief Rob Hoffman said the joint training session gives police and teachers a better understanding of their shared roles in responding to a mass shooting.

For police, Hoffman said the hard part of responding to a school shooting in progress is deciphering the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. The drill helps teachers, he said, because, “They won't be as shell shocked” if they ever find themselves in a real shooting situation.

Police from Pleasant Hills, Glassport, West Mifflin and Lincoln also participated in the drill, as did staff from Allegheny County Emergency Management.

Many precautions were taken in preparation. Police were armed with air-soft pistols and rifles and school staff members were issued equipment to protect their eyes and face.

Command Excellence trainer John Sakoian ran through a litany of instructions before the drill started. To police officers, he said, “Stay in the fight, even if you're struck or wounded.” He told teachers not to improvise and follow orders. If police say, “Put your hands up or get down on the ground,” do so, he told them.

Sakoian noted the air-guns used in the drill fire projectiles that can break the skin. He reminded participants to consider all contingencies when a shooting occurs.

“They plan these events for months and they train,” he said, referring to mass shooters. “We need to be prepared.”

Clairton Deputy Mayor Kathy Tachoir, who observed the drill, said she's glad the city was able to host a training session benefiting local police. “We really appreciate that Chief Hoffman took the initiative to set this up.”

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or