MODESTO — Law enforcement and educators came together Monday to practice responding to a worst-case scenario that has been a horrific reality at several schools recently across the country: a gunman on campus.
Actors portraying two troubled students attacked teens at Petersen Alternative Center for Education, throwing pipe bombs into a clutch of kids at lunch recess and shooting into the crowd.
In the scenario, one shooter was wounded by responding officers and another hid in a classroom. SWAT team members arrived and went room to room as 20 injured students lay in blood-red paint, unconscious or crying for help.
Planning for the Monday afternoon exercise started in August and was paid for with a safety grant to the Stanislaus County Office of Education. The county office, Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department and American Medical Response joined in the exercise, which was filmed for dissemination to schools and law enforcement statewide.
Young actors said having even a fake shooting attack got hearts thumping, and the wait for officers to clear the school seemed like forever. "My heart was racing, even though I knew what would happen," said 19-year-old Denise Maldonado, a Sheriff's Department Explorer. Maldonado was to be the first hit, with red streaks painted on her face showing her injuries from the loud but harmless blast. "I knew I was the one who had to set the tone, the emotion, the craziness."
Explorer Earl Gaarde, 18, stood bandaged and paint encrusted, a gaping fake wound in his midsection. He said his reaction surprised him. "I didn't expect to get into it, but once it got started, the adrenaline hit and I just went with it," he said.
Aanisah Watkins, 18, with the Youth Entertainment Stage Company, said she was scared even though she knew it was a simulation. She hid with other kids and a teacher, barricaded in a locked classroom, while her real-life friends cried for help outside. "You felt helpless, knowing you couldn't help them," Watkins said.
It took more than 30 minutes for sheriff's deputies to get the screaming students after they had finished their classroom searches. "The human portion of you says, 'I have got to get help for this person,' but I cannot get them help until we get this place secure," said Sheriff's Department spokesman Anthony Bejaran.
The Sheriff's Department Bomb Squad and SWAT team were used during the simulation. They, too, will review video of the scenario to determine if policies should change or anything could have been done differently.
The immediate take-away from the simulation was a need for blueprints of the school to better determine how law enforcement should approach, Bejaran said.
For PACE teacher Gretchen Leuenhagen, the simulation was an eye-opening look at what putting her students first could really mean. "Your first instinct is you're scared, but as the adult, you know you have to help them," she said. Leuenhagen said she and her actor students hid in the locked bathroom within her locked classroom and called the simulated 911 every few minutes for updates. The group debated what to do if the gunman broke in, and she said she planned to attack him with a chair to give the kids time to run.
PACE, behind a Juvenile Hall facility, has 60 to 100 students on campus at a time, virtually all from the hall or expelled from other school districts, school resource officer Juan Alanis said. The safety grant also paid for 36 surveillance cameras at the school, which law enforcement used to keep an eye on the shooter inside one of the classrooms.
School districts throughout the county are taking a hard look at their readiness for the unthinkable.
Monday night, Modesto City Schools board members voted to spend up to $99,000 for a company to standardize safety protocols and training throughout the district and create site-specific plans to have at the ready.
Today, Sylvan Union trustees will discuss having all their campuses mapped and a number of other ideas from discussions with campus administrators and law enforcement.
In the Newman-Crows Landing Unified district, Superintendent Ed Felt said school fences and any faulty classroom locks are slated for priority replacement. The district is considering buying more cameras and having specially trained canine units tour high schools periodically. The district has one school resource officer, and works closely with Newman police to keep a step ahead of any problems brewing, Felt said.
Ceres schools work closely with police in much the same way, said Ceres Unified Assistant Superintendent Jay Simmonds. The district met with police recently to review and update school plans. "We feel confident in our staff. Unfortunately, active shooters are such unique situations. You can do training for it, but every situation is different," Simmonds said. "You just practice and do your best."
Bee staff writer Erin Tracy contributed to this report
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter, @NanAustin.