Fake bullets, but real lessons from staged school-shooting training in Ceres

Active-shooter drill on campus

Emergency responders in Ceres held active-shooter training exercises at Cesar Chavez Junior High School on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018.
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Emergency responders in Ceres held active-shooter training exercises at Cesar Chavez Junior High School on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018.

An active-shooter training exercise held Saturday at Cesar Chavez Junior High did just what it should.

That’s not to say it went perfectly, because it didn’t. Miscommunications left a few “wounded” students lying in a locker room, undiscovered, for more than 45 minutes. Time was wasted because teams of officers searched classrooms that already had been cleared by their colleagues. At least once, officers reported a wrong location — saying they’d cleared the boys’ locker room when it was the girls’.

But the drill was intended to show police, fire, medical and school personnel what’s being done well and what needs improvement, and it did that.

The Ceres exercise was held the same morning that a mass shooting on the other side of the nation underscored the importance of police readiness for such all-too-common events. In Pittsburgh, a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire in a synagogue, killing at least 11 people and wounding several others.

The morning exercise in Ceres (a second scenario was played out afterward) had five gunmen attack the junior high campus. The script had it occurring during a recess period, and role-playing faculty, staff and high school students were hiding in classrooms and other areas on campus.

Beyond simply knowing they’d be part of a drill, officers and medical responders were kept in the dark, said Ceres police Sgt. Travis Hudson, who moved about campus to monitor events as they unfolded. “It will start off as a trivial call that would take maybe one or two officers, and we’ll escalate from there,” he said before the drill began.

Gunmen — played by students from the Institute of Technology, which has a criminal-justice program — were placed at key places around the campus to emphasize specific training points, Hudson said. The exchanges of gunfire used Simunition training rounds, like paintball but without the mess. The good guys and bad guys could feel where they were hit, so they knew if they were out of commission or could keep fighting.

Students were not fired upon, though they had to wear safety glasses in case of a stray shot. It was decided ahead of time how badly, if at all, they were injured, and they wore graphic makeup to reflect their wounds. The point of the makeup, Hudson said, was to heighten the realism for the officers.

Before the first shots, he told the “uninjured” students in the gym, “I’m gonna need you running around screaming. Run up to the officer like, ‘Help me! Help me!’ I need Grade-A acting today because the better you act, the better training it is for us.”

The training, held every four years or so, is meant to be across-the-board: SWAT team members, patrol officers, firefighters and paramedics who perform triage. But most important, Hudson said, “it’s for our command staff to pull out maps and work together. They don’t get the opportunity to do this a lot.”

For the school district, it was a chance to put lockdown procedures to the test, said Lorenzo Beltran, Ceres Police Department school resource officer. He threw some curves at teachers, too. He had shooters chase students to locked rooms where teachers and other kids were hiding. Teachers had to decide whether to open the doors to admit the kids and risk the gunmen possibly getting in.

“That’s a split-second decision with the teacher that they have to make themselves,” he said. “I can’t teach ’em, I can’t preach to ’em, ‘This is what you have to do.’”

At a debriefing after the campus had been cleared and the gunmen neutralized, Hudson commended the dozens of officers for their speed. “It was on from the get-go,” he said. “From the time they (the shooters) made the locker room, there were six cops here already, and I don’t know where the rest of you came from. I looked over at one point and there was a gaggle moving around the school.”

The bulk of the discussion wasn’t back-patting, though, but an examination of what needs to be done better.

One big issue was lack of keys. Officers were running around trying to gain entrance to rooms, only to find them locked. The campus has two key lock boxes — one for firefighters, the other for police — but the police box held just one master key. There was agreement that the box should have several keys, so officers can split up to clear rooms more efficiently.

Hudson pointed out that there was at least one missed opportunity with regard to keys. A campus staff member was among the wounded in the gym, and she had around her neck a lanyard with all the school keys. “We were hoping that someone would grab those,” he said at the debriefing. “If a faculty member is down and has keys, take them.”

He also reminded the group that if a fellow officer is killed, it’s crucial to take or disable his weapon and radio, lest they fall into the hands of a gunman. One officer was lost in the role-playing, and his radio was left with him.

Some officers expressed concern that firepower was lost as police instead of medical responders escorted the uninjured or walking injured to safety. But Lt. James Yandell said that’s the concept being pushed across the nation.

It’s called the rescue task force concept, he said, and it calls for having two to three officers escort any group of medical responders. “We’re trying to get the injured to treatment within the golden hour,” he said. “If we wait until we clear the school, which was the old way, people are dying.”.