Active-shooter drill puts Norwin school officials, police 'under fire'
A high-pitched panic alarm sounded Monday at Hahntown Elementary School in North Huntingdon after an angry-and-armed man entered the school to confront his estranged wife, a teacher, in her classroom.
North Huntingdon and Irwin police officers responded along with state police and North Huntingdon's emergency response team, wearing full gear and armed with assault rifles. The sound of blanks rang out from a second-floor classroom where the shooter held hostages and fired shots before surrendering after being shot.
The carefully coordinated drill was good training in the event a real school shooting ever happened in the Norwin School District, said Alicia Perry, a Hahntown Elementary kindergarten teacher who posed as the intruder's wife during the school safety exercise.
"I think it helped really prepare you if a similar situation occurs," Perry said.
More than 100 people — Norwin staff and teachers, state and local police and ambulance personnel — participated. The active-shooter drill also included a component where medics practiced transporting about a dozen injured people to Allegheny Health Network's Forbes Hospital in Monroeville for treatment.
The drill provided school officials a chance to test safety procedures, to see what works and correct weaknesses, said Joseph Shigle, coordinator of Norwin's safe schools committee. Shigle said he saw a need to improve communications between school officials and law enforcement and change some logistics, which he declined to specify.
In the case of a real shooting, Sgt. Jay McCurdy, commander of North Huntingdon's emergency response team, said that it can be a lengthy process to clear classrooms and move students and staff to a safe area. That would be the case even if officers responded within five minutes of receiving an alarm, he said.
"These things take a long time in real life," McCurdy said.
Ideally, it is best for people to get out of the building as quick and safely as possible.
"I'd rather find them healthy in the woods than find them in here (school) not healthy and hurt," McCurdy said.
Hahntown Principal Lisa Willig said the drill was an opportunity for school officials "to see the procedures we have in place and how we respond when put under fire."
Unlike some school districts, Norwin opted to hold the drill after the school year ended.
It was better to conduct the drill in a controlled environment, said Heather Newell, a principal at Norwin's Sheridan Terrace Elementary School in North Huntingdon.
"We would not do it with the students here. The (elementary) students would be frightened," Newell said.
Both Greensburg Salem and Springdale high schools conducted active shooter drills in April on days when students were in class.
On April 2, Norwin officials saw firsthand how students and teachers responded to active-shooter panic alarm when it accidentally sounded at the high school. Some confused and panicked students fled the building, while others barricaded themselves in classrooms with their teachers.
Schools are not required to conduct active shooter or intruder drills, but the Pennsylvania School Code was amended in November to permit schools to replace one fire drill every year with a school security drill. Districts can opt to have the drill conducted while students are in school.
Norwin's drill drew observers from Hempfield Area and Derry Area school districts, as well as from Queen of Angels Catholic School in North Huntingdon.
"It was real exciting to see everyone work together in such an incident," said Casey Long, an associate principal at Derry Area High School.
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or email@example.com.