On the summer-empty campus of Valencia High School, some very important lessons were being learned Thursday morning.
A handful of “students” hung around buildings or sat in teacher-free classrooms. As “shots” – blanks, fired by other role-players – rang out, they scrambled.
Deputies rushed in to find the shooters, grabbing students to get descriptions and information before pushing them to safety.
The deputies moved as a pack, eyes darting in all directions and red simulated pistols drawn. Although the students made few sounds – in reality, there would be a lot of screaming – the tension was felt by the protectors.
Detective Dan Finn was the coordinator of the training exercise, which the Sheriff’s department has been conducting for the last five years.
“We do this anywhere from five to 10 times a year,” Finn said. “All deputies are required by department policy to attend the training approximately once a year. We utilize all the junior high and high schools and try to get to all the campuses during the training. It’s basically to give the deputies training as to how to handle what we call ‘active shooter response.'”
Finn was one of several trainers on scene to guide and observe – and some of those were there to role-play the bad guys.
“We use the schools because that’s obviously the biggest concern, based on Columbine- and Santee-type events that have occurred,” Finn continued. “The training is designed not only for school shootings, but also shootings at the mall, shootings in the workplace, any place where there are a large number of potential victims that shooters target.”
The kids playing innocent bystanders were typical teenagers; some were student volunteers or Explorers, a few were children of deputies.
“Before Columbine, our approach was to contain the situation, but now we’ve changed the mindset to go in as a team and neutralize the situation,” said Sgt. Cortland Myers. “We train them not to wait for the Special Weapons Team. Patrol deputies are going to be the ones to go in as a team to assess the situation. They will be the first at the scene and will comprise the teams on the spot.”
The teams went out in groups of five, guns drawn, with one deputy in the middle holding the belt of the deputy covering the rear, who walked backwards. In a situation where they entered a classroom to search for a suspect, the group broke up slightly to search more effectively. Outside on the grounds, the clusters were tighter, each deputy scanning the landscape and moving as a unit, one deputy on the radio broadcasting suspect descriptions. When they came across students, they quickly asked them for information, then sent them scurrying off to safety.
In one scenario, three shooters were utilized to illustrate how quickly situations can change. Two rifle-wielding snipers were picked off, but one deputy with a snub-nosed handgun led the team on a chase that took them past wounded or dead students on the grounds and around the corner of a building at the end of the campus before he was apprehended.
Noticing the calmness of the “students,” Myers observed “If this ever really occurs, it will be very dramatic and traumatic.”
After the exercises, Finn brought the deputies back to an air-conditioned classroom for a brief critique. Radio and observation techniques were discussed, participants were given kudos for not allowing time for shooters to reload and everyone was reminded to think as a team.
“If nothing else, these exercises open up your eyes and get you thinking,” said Santa Clarita Station Commander Captain Anthony LaBerge, who had stopped by to watch the end of the training. “Your mindset has to be everybody can trust everybody else when you put your teams together.”