MERCED — The Merced College campus was bombarded Friday with sirens, flashing police lights and even simulated gunshots.
The scenario was part of a training exercise conducted by the Sheriff's Department to prepare county school administrators for the possibility of a gunman coming onto a campus.
Sheriff Mark Pazin said the idea emerged after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting last year in Newtown, Conn., where 20 children and six staff members were killed.
"After the Newtown shooting, questions started to arise about the preparedness of Merced County," Pazin said.
Pazin said he worked with Merced County Superintendent of Schools Steven E. Gomes to structure the one-day training which he hopes to continue each year.
In a series of exercises, 41 school administrators were given an up-close look at how law enforcement officials would respond to the event of a shooter on a school campus. The administrators were put in the middle of the chaos with pellet guns being fired and "students" running from all directions.
SWAT team vehicles, medical personnel and a helicopter overhead painted the backdrop for the two-hour training.
"They're going to get a full flavor for what law enforcement goes through when they get that 911 call," Pazin said. "We wanted it to be as real-life as possible. You can have all the classroom experience you want, but it's different when you taste it, feel it, hear the sirens."
Gomes said the administrators, which included principals, vice principals and superintendents, will take the information back to their schools to develop response strategies.
"From an educator's point of view, I see this as part of a continued discussion," Gomes said. "These kind of things are not like fire drills. In these scenarios, the threat is a moving threat."
Training is crucial
Rae Ann Jimenez, superintendent-principal at El Nido Elementary School District, said the training is crucial for school staff since they're often the first ones to help students.
"The realization that if this horrible event happens, we're the first ones there to help the children," Jimenez said. "We're not law enforcement, but it's our job to protect the children and faculty."
Javier Martinez, principal at Le Grand High School, said the training gave him an idea of what law enforcement officials experience and how to better assist them during critical moments.
He said he will take the information back to his staff to continue the conversation.
"Now we have to come up with a plan of action about how we're going to make sure we're ready to save students' lives," Martinez said.
Mark Pintor, vice principal at Merced Scholars Charter School, also plans to take the lessons he learned back to his team.
"It's about practice and preparedness," he said. "Now it's time to take the information learned here to the staff so we can make our school safer."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.