Extensive emergency personnel training leads to smooth resolution of incident at high school
A lockdown at Parkland High School Sept. 14 could have led students, parents and administrators into panic mode; however, extensive emergency training helped ensure calm while a suspicious incident was investigated.
Around 4:45 p.m. that Friday, a teacher noticed an individual dressed in camouflage running up to the flagpole at the high school, saluting, saying a prayer and running toward the building.
Following proper procedure, the teacher called the 911 communications center with her suspicions.
A Lehigh County detective in the homicide unit happened to be at the school to pick up his daughter at 4:30 p.m.
The detective confirmed he also saw a person matching that description.
Police responded by activating the emergency response team with three teams deployed, including Allentown and, Bethlehem City police departments and the County Municipal Emergency Response Team, along with South Whitehall police, K-9 units, state police, ambulance and fire personnel from surrounding areas.
During a 9:45 p.m. press conference held a short distance from the high school, South Whitehall Police Chief Thomas J. Toth described the suspicious person and detailed steps taken to locate him, secure the building and remove everyone safely.
The building was secured with students and administrative personnel inside being ushered into safe areas under lockdown until it could be determined he was not in the building.
With 3,200 students in the building during a school day, approximately 500 remained at the school at the time for practices or preparing to leave for an away football game against Northampton.
Freshman Tori Connolly told The Press she was in the school at swimming practice.
"We saw a couple of police officers come into the pool area, enter the locker rooms and come back out and talk to the coaches," Tori said. "The coaches then told everyone to get out of the pool.
"Coach Ryan Woodruff went with the boys and Coach Rob Robitaille took the girls. They explained we were on lockdown and told us they didn't know what happened, to lock the doors and not open the doors even if someone comes."
The students were told to remain quiet.
"Everyone was confused but everyone was calm because we are used to doing these drills," Tori said.
They were in lockdown for approximately 20 minutes. At that time, someone from the fire department escorted the 40 swimmers out of the building via the pool exit.
"Coach Woodruff was emailing parents, explaining they were on lockdown and said everyone was OK," Tori said. "He continued to email updates to the parents."
Tori texted her father, Mike Connolly, at 5:40 p.m. and told him they were in lockdown.
He headed toward the school and everything looked normal.
"The football players and cheerleaders were on the field," Connolly said. "When I went to the pool entrance, I was greeted by a coach who said the students weren't cleared to leave the building yet.
"I saw fire department personnel, a state trooper drive around the building, helicopters and two Cetronia ambulances arrive. I waited about 10 to 15 minutes before the swimmers left the building.
"I was concerned, but not panicked while waiting for Tori. All personnel were very calm, professional and confident.
"I didn't see anyone running around frantic or under stress. Communication went back and forth and no one seemed overly concerned. Everything seemed under control."
District Attorney Jim Martin addressed the media just before 10 p.m.
"As you know, we had a suspicious incident at Parkland High School late this afternoon," Martin said. "I'm pleased to report to you that incident has been resolved satisfactorily.
"As it turned out, there was no one in the school buildlng. We have a complete degree of confidence what happened here was an individual who was exercising.
"I can only categorize this as an astonishingly great response from law enforcement, not only Lehigh County, but from the surrounding area. It is probably accurate to say we had representation from every law enforcement agency in Lehigh County."
Parkland School District Superintendent Richard Sniscak said their "first thought today was for the health, safety and welfare of children and the families who were on the property at that time, as well as the administrators.
"We were able to secure the building rather quickly," Sniscak said. "There was a volleyball game going on at this time and we were able to lock down the gymnasium.
"We had swimmers in the pool we were able to secure. Students on the football practice field were bused to the Troxell Building.
"We had a field hockey game going on at that time; the junior varsity match was postponed, which was in progress and we sent them home.
"Members of the band, cheerleaders and the football team were in Northampton. We rerouted the buses after the game where parents met their children at the Troxell Building.
"This was quite an event."
Sniscak thanked emergency responders and the administrators on campus for their efforts.
"The response from the school district was amazingly appropriate," Martin said. "Without his [Sniscak] help, we would not have been able to contact the young man."
Detectives assisted in determining the identity of the student.
The young man was contacted by telephone, confirming he was the student observed.
Martin said they were not going to identify the student who had water bottles filled with sand in his flak jacket to weigh him down as he is in training for military boot camp.
"The student did nothing wrong," Martin said. "It just appeared suspicious."
Martin also said the teacher "acted appropriately under the circumstances."
He also said although it was an expensive event, each municipality will pick up the costs.
"Everything went smoothly and this can be used as a training exercise," Martin said.
Everyone involved in this incident, which occurred just three days after the 11th anniversary of 9/11, from the teacher who made the call, the coaches who kept calm and maintained open communication, the students who did not panic, the emergency personnel who are trained for these situations, everyone did everything right in this situation, which could have had a completely different ending.
On a lighter note, Martin asked if the football team won the game.
Sniscak said he did not know.
The team did, in fact, with a 28-0 win against Northampton.