If you didn’t see the prominently placed ‘Police Training In Progress’ signs stationed on the campus of Escalon High School on Friday, you might have been concerned about the number of gunshots echoing through the nearly empty campus.
School district officials, working in cooperation with the Escalon Police Department and members of the Manteca Police Department SWAT team, conducted a full scale ‘active shooter’ drill on Friday morning, running multiple scenarios as part of a training exercise.
With school out for Spring Break, the campus was virtually empty, but members of the Associated Student Body leadership team came in to play various roles, as did some teachers and support staff. EHS junior Clayton Keener, a member of Manteca’s Explorer post, took on the role of shooter in many of the scenarios.
Guns used were realistic looking but orange tipped to identify them as fake, and the air soft guns were equipped with pellets that stung but didn’t permanently injure.
A pair of former Escalon Police Officers, now with Manteca, was instrumental in bringing the training to the local community. SWAT coordinator Jason Hensley and Detective Rob Armosino were both on hand at Escalon High for the duration of Friday’s scenarios, and both formerly worked at the local department.
Police Chief Milt Medeiros said he was glad that the training session was conducted and equally pleased that Escalon officers have gone on to serve well in larger departments.
“Safety is our priority here,” Hensley told the group as it assembled to learn what the scenarios would entail. “We’re here to train and equip your officers, add another tool to their tool belt.
“We also want to open your eyes in a much larger way to not only officer safety, but school safety.”
Detective Jim Bonetti, also a SWAT member, explained that if a real shooter was reported on a campus, the school would be inundated with officers from multiple agencies responding, not just the local police.
“You get the call that kids are being shot at, you put everything else aside and get on it,” Detective Armosino added.
Escalon has a campus monitor on duty and cameras on the campus, but authorities agreed that there can’t be eyes and ears everywhere. Having the simulated shooting, with the gunman also taking hostages, gave local officers the chance to hone their skills in the high-stress situation. Teams of Escalon officers, two to three at a time, were sent in, as each scenario played out several times.
With officers getting a radio call of shots fired or a possible gunman on campus, they came onto the school grounds with weapons drawn, greeted by groups of screaming, fleeing students and staff. Some gunfire was exchanged in the scenarios, with officers utilizing parked cars, buildings and other forms of protection as they advanced toward the shooter. In each case, the shooter was neutralized and the hostages taken into protective custody.
Bonetti said Manteca Police Chief Nick Obligacion is an advocate for offering the training, and Ripon, Manteca and Escalon are among those departments participating.
“He wants to pass on the knowledge,” Bonetti said. “Knowledge is power.”
Even though the scenarios were staged and participants were given the warning that the drill was ‘going live,’ it did seem to take on a note of anxiety as students and teachers were fleeing, gunshots ringing in the air.
“There’s some sense of realism here,” agreed Chief Medeiros. “You can have a workshop, try to address the issues but unless you can see it, smell it, feel it, you can’t fathom it.”
Medeiros said it was important to work with the schools so each entity “understands each other’s roles” if an incident occurred.
“It’s another type of domestic terrorism,” Medeiros said. “We train for the worst and hope for the best.”
Keener, who plans to go into police work as a career, said the active shooter scenario “makes you think” about the possibility of it happening, and he was glad the local officers and school officials joined together in the training.
Senior Jessica Azevedo was among the students ‘fleeing’ the gunman.
“It’s a life lesson,” she said. “We get to learn what to do if a gunman comes on campus, you do what the cops tell you.
“I feel pretty safe here but it can happen anywhere and knowing that the shooter can be anybody is frightening.”
The drill helped school and police officials confront some of those fears and issues and left both with a better understanding of how to handle a situation.
“I appreciate the partnership (with police) and anything we can do to improve student safety is a good thing,” said Escalon Unified School District Superintendent Ron Costa. “Parents are concerned, and we are doing a lot with school safety.”
Manteca officers were appreciative of the opportunity to get in a little extra training as well.
“I applaud Escalon for taking a proactive approach,” Hensley said.