CASD holds active shooter drill at Catasauqua Middle School
A heavy silence hangs in the air as Catasauqua Middle School faculty and staff mentally prepare themselves for the next step in the extensive security upgrades in the school district. I take a moment to put my earplugs in and make sure my shoes are tied in anticipation of the impending activities. Any minute now, a man with a gun will enter the school.
On March 8, numerous emergency management groups and law enforcement personnel partnered with Catasauqua Area School District to present an active shooter drill at CMS. The day began with emergency management and law enforcement personnel briefing teachers and staff on what was to be expected. Safety was a primary concern. Catasauqua Police Chief Douglas Kish emphasized his officers would not be carrying real weapons. All participants, including myself, were checked for weapons before the beginning of the drill.
I accompanied Maria Wescoe, from Northampton Regional Emergency Management Services, as she set mannequins out in a few of the classrooms. The mannequins were stand-ins for casualties of the shooter and were placed under desks or in corners where someone might hide. This was to help EMS personnel train in searching a room and allowed them to practice quickly assessing a situation.
Shelley L. Keffer, coordinator of student services for CASD, served as my guide through this drill. We were joined by Donald Panto, school board treasurer.
“What an undertaking. The amount of work put in is impressive,” Panto reflected as we moved into position for the start of the drill.
The shooter, played by Chris Houtz, was set to enter the school via a back door in the cafeteria. Emergency personnel were posted on each floor to make sure everything went smoothly.
Despite knowing what was going to happen and knowing it was all fake, my heart started racing when Houtz fired the first few shots. To lend a sense of authenticity to the drill, Houtz was shooting blanks.
The gunshot sound served its purpose.
We followed as Houtz traveled up the stairs and started entering classrooms. It was a surreal experience standing in the hallway, watching him disappear inside a classroom and hearing the shots.
One of the participants added a sense of realness by calling out for help from one of the classrooms.
Within a few minutes, Officer Pat Best, school resource officer, was seen charging down the hallway after the shooter. Unfortunately, for the sake of the drill, Best was shot down. A few minutes later, his comrades from Catasauqua Police Department were seen coming down the hall in a tight formation. They quickly apprehended the shooter, had him disarmed and handcuffed and led him out of the building during the drill.
“Don’t forget you could have more than one shooter,” Kish reminded the officers.
While some officers left with the shooter, the others continued the search.
Once the school was cleared, EMS groups were able to begin their searches and bring “injured” people to the triage area. The other SRO, Officer Jenna Dumansky-Potak took the point position in protecting EMS groups as they set out to search.
The planning process for this drill was extensive and involved a great deal of moving parts. There were numerous meetings to make sure all details were accounted for and the drill would go off without a hitch. This involved coordinating police, fire, EMS, school district and emergency management personnel, among others.
Not only was this drill educational for school district personnel, but a variety of EMS and police departments took advantage of the opportunity. Participants included Catasauqua, North Catasauqua and Allen Township emergency management groups; Catasauqua and North Catasauqua police departments; Catasauqua, North Catasauqua and Whitehall Township fire departments; Catasauqua and North Catasauqua fire police; Northampton Regional, Allentown, Northern Valley and Cetronia EMS groups; Lehigh County Rescue Task Force; DeSales University Emergency Services Department; and Lehigh University Police Department. Brian McKittrick, Catasauqua Borough Council public safety chairman, and Joseph Carl, emergency management coordinator for Catasauqua Emergency Management Agency, were also instrumental in the planning and successful implementation of this drill.
I then met with Superintendent Robert Spengler and Panto in the media room set up at the administration building. I was asked to fill the role of the media, which would be looking for answers and information in an actual emergency situation.
Spengler noted one of the biggest priorities for CASD for the 2018-19 school year was to improve and build upon the security and safety in the district. There are two SROs in the district, with Best serving CMS and Sheckler Elementary School and Dumansky-Potak at Catasauqua High School. Panto also noted the district added two mental health workers this year.
Panto mentioned how important the drill is for mental preparation.
“Training we hope we never have to use,” Panto reflected about the, at times, overwhelming drill.
All of the teachers and staff at the schools have also undergone numerous training sessions throughout the year. This drill was the next step, according to Spengler. They are aiming for a comprehensive approach to safety in the district, and Spengler reported they are constantly evolving. Each new step allows them to learn and grow, and they will continue to move forward to offer the best security and safety for the students and staff in the district.