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Leaders receive training from Tree of Life, Sikh Temple attack experts

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Stephanie Hacke | For the Tribune-Review
Brad Orsini, communal security director for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, provides a Tree of Life case study to attendees at the Friends of Safe Schools Threat Assessment conference on Nov. 5.

One year after the Tree of Life synagogue attack that left 11 people dead, Brad Orsini, communal security director for the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, continues to share intricate details of the day’s events to help others train for the worst in hopes of saving lives.

“The general lesson is (that) there’s no such thing as too much training and being prepared. Our whole goal is to educate citizens on their responses in cases of danger,” Orsini, a 28-year veteran of the FBI, said after a presentation. “The only thing we have control over is how much we train.”

More than 100 law enforcement officers, religious leaders and school officials gathered Nov. 4-5 at the DoubleTree Pittsburgh/Meadow Lands for the Friends of Safe Schools threat assessment conference, where they heard firsthand from experts in the field about how hate crimes unfold and how they can prepare for and prevent tragedies. Attendees came from as far away as Maryland and New York and as nearby as Chartiers Valley and West Jefferson Hills.

“We’re hoping that they will leave here and that they will be able to recognize some of the behavioral indicators of violence,” said Aaron Vanatta, Quaker Valley school police officer and Pennsylvania director of Friends of Safe Schools, who organized the event.

Orsini shared survivor testimony and the importance of training with those in attendance.

In the year and a half prior to the Tree of Life attack, his organization had done 135 separate trainings in the Jewish community with more than 6,000 people. Since then, they’ve done another 100 trainings. They train with programs including “Run. Hide. Fight.” and “Stop the Bleed.” More than 15,000 people have gone through the trainings.

“We teach commitment to action, stick with the plan, don’t second guess, move as quickly as you can, train,” Orsini said following his presentation. “We really talk about movement.”

He elaborated on that to say: “It’s not just hiding. It’s locking the door. It’s barricading. It’s calling 911, preparing. You’re not just hiding. You’re preparing to counter, fight back and evacuate.”

Training the community is vital, Orsini said.

“We can do everything we can, but the training for a regular civilian, you can’t put a price on that because — either you live or die. What’s the price you put on that?” he asked.

The two-day conference brought in Lt. Brian Murphy, the first responding officer to the 2012 Sikh Temple massacre in Wisconson that left six dead and another three wounded, along with former white supremacist skinhead leader Arno Michaelis, who talked about his journey – it was his life as a single parent and his love for his daughter, along with being shown forgiveness by people he once hated, that helped him turn his life around.

Dr. Jack Rozel, medical director of resolve Crisis Services at UPMC, capped off the event, training attendees on what to look for in a person that is on a pathway to violence.

It could be postings on social media, changes in personal appearance or school assignments turning “dark or violent,” Vanatta said.

“We’ve got to, first of all, grab all of those puzzle pieces from all over and put them together,” he said. “The valuable pieces learned from these events aren’t something you can really get from a textbook.”

Attendees learned what worked and what didn’t, what first responders wished they had known before the incidents and how they would have planned differently, Vanatta said.

Pleasant Hills school resource officer Ron Porupsky said the conference helped him to fine-tune his use of the safety mechanisms already in place in the West Jefferson Hills School District while learning about new products available to keep kids and faculty safe.

It also gave him a better understanding of hate crimes and how they unfold.

“Even as a police officer, it’s hard to understand why people hate,” he said.

Hearing from people on the inside helped him understand how these crimes manifest and showed him ways he can work to connect with youths to reach out in hopes of “changing his or her life direction and possibly avoid future hate crimes.”

Edward Joyner, Chartiers Valley’s administrator of safety and security/school police officer, said the conference “provided an incredible opportunity to gather with other first responders and school leaders to learn about best practices, technology, and programs associated with keeping our children safe.”

He is headed back to the district “with an abundance of ideas and resources.”

Porupsky said he was glad to hear that programs already in place in his district are effective in helping save lives in crisis situations.

Adam Knaresborough, assistant principal at Thomas Jefferson High School, said the conference reiterated for him the importance of training and how the first 90 seconds to three minutes is critical in saving lives. With a new 300,000-square-foot Thomas Jefferson High School opening this year, Knaresborough said it also reinforced that first responders need to become familiar with the building, so they know its ins and outs in case a tragedy strikes.

West Jefferson Hills School police Officer Brian Peters said the hope is to get ahead of tragic situations and prevent them.

“The earlier you can recognize potential problems or the earlier you can identify either issues or individuals, the better likelihood you have of intervening and preventing something really bad from happening,” Peters said.

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