SPARTA, NJ – It was a scene that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago. Sparta High School was the scene of a drill that brought together law enforcement from across the county, to participate or observe.
The rain was a fitting backdrop to the Reunification Drill that took place on Monday on the Sparta High School and Wallkill Valley Regional High School campuses, as well as the route between the schools.
It was more than a reunification drill. Beginning at 12:19 and continuing for approximately 10 minutes “Lock Down, Lock Down, Lock Down” could be heard over the public address system, accompanied by a buzzer and flashing strobe lights on the outside of the building.
Other than the alarm, the campus was quiet; no students or staff were seen walking around.
Sussex County Prosecutor Francis Koch was at both schools. Such drills are the evolving plan that has been in the works for about two years, Koch said. This large scale drill has been done a few times in the county with and without the reunification component.
“It is a unified plan with all public schools and all law enforcement offices on board,” Koch said. “We are a small county so we rely on mutual aid.”
“I believe as a County we are forging ahead together on how to best respond to these potential incidents,” Sparta Police Chief Neil Spidaletto said. “We have more work ahead of us, but collectively this topic is at the top of our list. The safety of our students is paramount.”
Because it was a drill, a school bus was in the parking lot waiting to transport the “evacuated students” to Wallkill Valley. With Sparta Police Officers, Sparta School Security Officers, Sparta SRO, representatives from Sussex County Sheriff’s Officers participating, the students filed out of the school and onto the bus.
At the same time, Sparta Police Officers began arriving in their patrol cars with lights and sirens going. They assembled and donned tactical gear before running into the school. Once inside they would conduct an Active Shooter Drill, while the students were on Lock Down, according to Spidaletto.
The Sparta Police Officers conducting the drill inside the school were using airsoft replica versions of the weapons the Sparta Police Department has. Further, the officers had been stripped of all of their live weapons and ammunition, prior to going into the school, Spidaletto said.
The drill was being coordinated by Det. Lt. Terrance Mulligan. Vice Principal Rory Fitzgerald was coordinating the school’s part. Before the drill began the bus was loaded with two bags, one as big as a hockey bag, referred to as the “Go Bags.”
The “Go Bags” contained, among other things, binders of information about the students, including a current photo.
A wheelchair and crutches were also added to the bus because, once at Wallkill Valley two students would play the role of “Injured.” With signs around their necks, the students were removed from the bus and brought to a be triaged.
According to Spidaletto, future training will incorporate triaging at the incident location.
Sparta Police continued to go through their Active Shooter Drill, dispatching officers to various areas of the campus, as a Department of Public Works large bucket loader arrived, “to remove any obstacles,” Spidaletto said. In the event of a real emergency, the equipment could be used to move cars that might be in the way as well as serve as a blockade according to Spidaletto.
“We wanted to be a part of the drill to get an idea of how long it would take to respond,” Department of Public Works Supervisor Mike McCarrick said.
With the students and staff members on the bus, it departed escorted front and back by Sussex County Sheriff’s Vehicles. More than one route was prepared for the evacuation. The entourage continued up West Mountain Road.
Along the way, major intersections were monitored by police officers from Sparta, Ogdensburg and Franklin, in patrol vehicles as well as a large dump truck, again to potentially serve as a blockade.
Koch said each time the drill is performed, “it is expanded.” This time the involvement of the Department of Public Works and fire department with the large pieces of equipment were added.
The Sussex County Sheriff’s Department brought in their mobile command trailer after the students were evacuated.
“It is a unified plan but it is the reunification that drove this train,” Sussex County Prosecutor Francis Koch said. “[In a real emergency] we don’t want everyone running to the school, clogging all of the arteries.” The roads need to be clear to allow law enforcement to get to the scene.
Once on the campus of Wallkill Valley, a school official directed traffic in the parking lot. The bus unloaded students. Law enforcement officers went into the building. Parents began arriving, as they would in the event of an actual emergency, to retrieve their students.
Inside Wallkill Valley, Sparta Athletic Director Steve Stoner said all spring sport athletes were asked to participate in the drill. Approximately 32 students returned permission slips to take part. Their parents also agreed to participate. Additional PSTO volunteers were recruited to assist with the reunification part of the drill.
Superintendent Michael Rossi was at Wallkill Valley. Fitzgerald, Stoner, Sparta High School Vice Principal Michael Lauricella and Helen Morgan Principal Doug Layman were all at the companion school to observe the reunification process.
Rossi said the Sussex County Prosecutor would hold a debriefing with law enforcement and would probably do the same for the superintendents in the county. He said it generally appeared to go smoothly. “There was some redirection on the road and maybe there could have been some signs, but that is why we drill.”
The plan “is always being developed,” Koch said. The Sussex County Police Chief’s Association will all talk about the “pluses and minuses” from the drill.
Sparta Police, Sussex County Prosecutors Office, Sussex County Sheriff’s Department, Hardyston Police Department, Franklin Police Department, Ogdensburg Police Department, Newton Police Department, New Jersey State Police, Sparta School District Security, Sparta Fire Department, Sparta Ambulance Squad, Sparta Department of Public Works, Hardyston Fire Department, Sparta School District Superintendent and staff, Wallkill Valley School District and staff all participated in the drill, either as an active participant or observer giving feedback.
“I appreciate all the parents, students and schools that do this,” Koch said. “The purpose is to minimize chaos. The only way to do this is to practice. It’s important to work together.”
When asked if plans have been made for parents that are unable to get to the school to pick up their student, to be able to designate a surrogate, Koch said the emergency contacts are included in the Go Bags. “If the emergency contact doesn’t get here it will just take longer,” Koch said, just as a real situation would take longer than the drill.
School security continues to evolve. Koch said the New Jersey State Police have received Active Shooter training. They are bringing it to local police jurisdictions “so we are all using the same language.”
“Student safety is paramount,” Koch said.
“I would like to thank everyone who cooperatively assisted with this important drill,” Spidaletto said. “The drill overall went well with noted areas we shall improve on. This is why we drill and prepare for these potential situations.”
“It was very interesting to see how an emergency evacuation would be handled,” Sparta High School student evacuee Greg Puszcz said. “With so many people to coordinate, it ran very efficiently.”