Trained decoys, all of whom had some sort of law enforcement background, acted as intruders and tried to get into four York City schools on Feb. 1.
Two schools prevented the intruders from getting in, and two quickly identified them after they got in, said Michael Muldrow, the school district's safety and security manager.
But those in the schools didn't know it was a drill. In one case, a police officer acting as the intruder was outside a school and flashed part of his unloaded gun, which a school security employee then grabbed, Muldrow said.
York City Police are looking into exactly what happened, and the city school board president said she received some calls of concern. But Muldrow said the drills, held less than two months after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, show how ready schools are if something real happens.
"While the drill was no doubt inconvenient and stressful, we take great pride in the outcome, the evidence of our readiness and the confidence families can have in our schools," he said in an email.
The drills were aimed at testing the readiness of school staff, Muldrow said. They were unannounced to ensure a "real response," he said.
At McKinley Elementary School, a city police officer playing the intruder tried to get into a school and triggered a lockdown, Muldrow said. A school security staff member confronted the intruder outside, at
Margie Orr, school board president, said she received calls from people concerned about the drill. She said she wasn't in on the initial planning and has since become aware the police are looking into it.
Such drills are important, she said, noting schools are trying to become more alert and observant. The school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December has drawn attention to school security.
But even with good intentions, "something serious maybe could have come out of that," Orr said.
District employee Garland Martin wrote a letter to the York Daily Record/Sunday News, raising concern about a real gun being used in the drill.
"Although armed police officers in schools may be a good idea to keep our children safe, conducting a drill where firearms are being used is never a wise idea," Martin wrote.
Reviewing the drill
Muldrow said stories of what took place at McKinley have made it out to be more dramatic than what actually happened.
Decoys had been encouraged to go for realism and take it seriously, he said. They were monitored by district representatives, and decoys knew how to end the drill. He said there was constant supervision, and said York County 911 was alerted before the drills began.
He said he didn't want to "Monday morning quarterback" how the officer acted.
Muldrow said he thinks the focus should be on the school security staff member who was ready to do whatever it took to ensure students' safety.
"I am more focused on wow, for $11.50 an hour somebody was about ready to do anything they could possibly do to save lives," he said.
Muldrow said he coordinated the drill and has run similar drills in the past. He first ran the idea past Supt. Deborah Wortham, York City Police Chief Wes Kahley and Mayor Kim Bracey.
Kahley said he's looking into officers' involvement in the drill. He said he wasn't involved in the drill and said it was run by the school district, which requested the help of the school resource officers and another officer.
Kahley said his understanding was the district wanted people to try to walk into the building unauthorized to test the staff.
He's looking into the exact involvement of the officers to see if anything inappropriate happened or any safety violations occurred.
"Obviously, we have a concern for the safety of the kids and the public so we want to make sure things were done correctly," he said.
Martin, in his letter, also raised concern about a teacher seeking medical attention after the drill and about an armed Schaad Detective Agency employee being at the high school during the drill.
Muldrow said the scenario at the high school didn't involve anything that would have caused the Schaad employee to use his gun. The Schaad employee has trained on such drills in the past, he said, and those acting as decoys knew how far to push before ending the scenario and announcing it was a drill.
Tim Lenahan, general manager at Schaad, declined to comment and referred questions to the district.
Muldrow said one employee at McKinley went to the school nurse after being "understandably" unnerved by the drill.
Engaging with students was off limits, though one high school student was commended for refusing to open a door for the intruder, Muldrow said.
Muldrow said feedback he's received from parents has been positive.
District Supt. Deborah Wortham said that Muldrow planned the drill with city police and she had the "utmost confidence" it was done with police input.
She said she did not hear any concerns from parents.
School board member James Morgan said the district was being proactive "in light of what has been occurring nationally."
"We want to make sure our staff and our students are safe. The only way to do that is to make sure we are prepared by initiating various drills to try to simulate true and actual events as closely as possible," he said.
The drill gave the district a chance to identify flaws and weaknesses, he said.
Central York School District has run intruder drills at all of its schools this year, according to district spokeswoman Julie Romig.
Students and staff are notified in advance of the drill, and administrators speak during the event to remind students it is a drill, particularly at the elementary level where it's a little more intimidating than a fire drill, she said.
Romig provided a copy of the letter sent home to parents before a drill at Roundtown Elementary School on Feb. 8.
Principal Matthew Miller wrote that the drill would consist of an announcement by him and would not involve any loud alarms or sounds. Teachers would read quietly to students during the drill, reminding them that it is only practice, he said.
Don Smith, emergency planning and response management coordinator for the Center for Safe Schools, a Camp Hill-based organization that serves schools in the state, said that holding emergency drills is a "stepping stone process."
He recommends that if schools hold full-scale exercises involving law enforcement and emergency response entities, each agency should first train and practice on its own. Then the agencies can work through a tabletop exercise together, then hold an exercise that doesn't involve students and staff, before getting to a full-scale exercise.
Asked if drills should be announced or unannounced, he used fire drills as an example. He recommends the first two of the school year be "walk 'em, talk 'em throughs," he said, where the plans to have a fire drill would be announced and teachers would review procedures with students before an announcement of the actual drill is made and the alarm sounded.
Then, for the next one, a school can just be told there will be a drill on a certain day. Even then, when the alarm is pulled, the school can immediately announce it is a drill to lower anxiety.
Any drill should have clearly established objectives and evaluation criteria, he said.
Smith said he could not comment specifically on the York City School District's intruder drills because he did not know the details.
Drills in the news
News reports show intruder drills raising concerns at school districts around the country for various reasons.
In Monroe, La., an unannounced intruder drill caused students to call their parents, who called 911, according to a KNOE 8 news report. Police weren't aware of the drill either, the story said.
In a drill at an Illinois high school, starter guns were fired to add realism, according to a Chicago Tribune story, causing some alarm.
Less than a week after a school shooting in Newtown, Conn., a drill at an East Harlem, N.Y. school drew police response and concerns from some who didn't realize it was a drill, according to a story in the New York Times.Related