School Safety Discussion Looks at Nickel Mines

BROCKWAY, Pa. (EYT) – Every school in America is asking tough questions about how to present the safest environment for students in an America which has more-frequent school shootings.

(Picture: State Police Lieutenant Mark Magyar (left) with Brockway Police Chief Terry Young before Magyar’s presentation about the Nickel Mines School Shooting.)

Whether it’s adding more school resource officers, security systems, armed teachers, or metal detectors, administrators and communities have to wrestle with making a decision that enhances safety without causing a disruption.

One way to further that discussion is to look at lessons learned from past school tragedies. For Brockway Area Junior-Senior High School, it was hearing from State Police Lieutenant Mark Magyar, one of the first officers inside the Amish schoolhouse attacked in Nickel Mines, Lancaster County.

Magyar is the criminal investigation section commander at Pennsylvania State Police Troop H in Harrisburg. He was previously the analytical intelligence section supervisor in the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. He also does presentations on the Nickel Mines Amish School Shooting. 

On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts IV entered the West Nickel Mines School, took hostages, and barricaded himself inside.  He killed five of the hostages and then took his own life as officers entered. Magyar was one of those officers.

“In over 50 years, no one has died in a school fire,” Magyar said to a crowd of teachers, first responders, community members, and school administrators.  “People took fire safety seriously and made changes. At some point, we need to put out heads together and figure out how to make schools safer against shooters.”

To give context, Magyar went over his experiences in 2006. He was on the right side of the building, and when Roberts began shooting, tried to enter through a side door before moving to the front of the building and joining other officers in breaching the structure. He helped carry the victims out of the building because it was too small to effectively give medical attention. He held one girl while she gasped for breath as they waited for ambulances to arrive.

“Response to active shooters was different 11 years ago than it is now,” he said, pointing to one lesson learned from the shooting. “Back then, protocol was to negotiate as much as possible. Now, we get inside as soon as possible.”

Magyar’s presentation is dynamic, incorporating crime scene photos and video from news footage. He explained that the school was so small that Brockway could fit 20 of them in the high school. The simplicity, he feels, is why the shooting is still discussed even though there have been much more deadly shootings in the United States.

“The Pennsylvania State Police learned from this event,” he said. “For example, it took 10 troopers two minutes to get inside that building. Now we have ‘breaching backpacks’ to get inside.”

The lessons from Nickel Mines went beyond “breaching backpacks,” which include tools to get inside a building – from a battering ram to bolt cutters.  It also had the police looking at communications equipment and active shooter procedures. It also helped them map all 180 Amish schoolhouses in Lancaster County.

What schools can learn from this experience grew out of the State Police’s lessons.

First, Magyar said that schools need to have a procedure in place that it can follow. Next, they need to coordinate ahead of time to have crisis counselors set up instead of looking for help after an event. They also need to designate a point person to get information out to the media and the community.

Finally, the biggest lesson was how to have everyone involved start to process the trauma they endured.

“Get those involved together in a room without any outsiders and let them talk,” he said. “Let them share their stories with people who were there. It’s helpful to be able to talk about what happened to you without someone analyzing what you’re saying.”

Magyar said that was helpful to him after the shooting.

Magyar’s visit was set up by Brockway Co-Principal Jeff Vizza before the most-recent school shooting.

“This started in September,” Vizza said. “We were looking at new trainings and analyzing procedures, and I told [Brockway Police Chief] Terry Young about a presentation I had seen that was so impactful. I gave him the information and he found Lieutenant Magyar.”

Vizza and the other administrators at Brockway are, like other districts, analyzing the state of the school’s protocols and safety plans.

“We’re always looking for new ways to connect drills and training to enhance safety at our school,” Vizza said. “What we saw today is that little things are extremely important, like communication and working with all stakeholders. We all have to work together to do what’s best for our students.”

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