Merced County leaders ponder school shooting procedures

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comJune 21, 2013 

— Educational leaders and law enforcement officers Wednesday morning pondered the best ways to keep students and school personnel safe from gun-wielding intruders in a safety summit conducted by Sheriff Mark Pazin and the Merced County Office of Education.

Forty-eight administrators, trustees and police officers from 14 school districts and Merced College took part in a three-hour program at Valley Community School in Atwater.

An early-August drill is being planned to prepare for what are termed "active shooters" at a school.

Pazin was encouraged that school officials and law enforcement officers appear to be on the same page as far as preparing for shooting incidents.

"We are here to review best practices of law enforcement professionals," Pazin said, "and how best to intertwine these practices to neutralize the threat and save lives."

Steve Gomes, county superintendent of schools, said the goal is to be as prepared as humanly possible for incidents such as the shootings on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Colorado and Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

Gomes conceded that while the subject may be difficult to talk about, it must be dealt with openly.

"I saw a need to bring law enforcement and educators together," Gomes said. "They need to look at all the variables. We definitely take very seriously the safety of children."

Randall Heller, Winton School District superintendent, said a school shooting can happen anywhere. He called Wednesday's safety summit long overdue and stressed safety of students is the No. 1 priority.

"We need to be proactive," Heller said. "We don't want an intruder to come after us."

Pazin is working on setting up an "active-shooter" drill, tentatively set for Aug. 2 at Merced College. Administrators, principals and teachers will get to assume the role of police in the active-shooter simulations.

Donna Alley, Le Grand Union High School District superintendent, said the safety summit was very beneficial; she favored the idea of future collaborative sessions on how to respond to a campus shooting.

"We will relook at our plans and hit the ground running in August with monthly drills," Alley said. "We are as safe as we can be."

Joe Hoffar, a retired police officer, Atwater school trustee and active-shooter training consultant, said there is no 100 percent guarantee of school safety.

He said that the more school personnel think outside the box and participate in such drills, the better their chances of survival will be.

Paul Baxter, safety loss control specialist with the Merced County Office of Education, moderated an open forum on current safety practices of school districts.

"I am very excited this is being brought to the forefront with people who can make a difference," Baxter said. "For me, the biggest thought is that hopefully those present will continue their work towards this goal. It has a tendency to be pushed to the back burner."

Delray Shelton, Merced County Sheriff's Department's public information officer and a field training officer, said fear is conquered by preparation. He said shooting incidents need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

"One of the takeaways from today is everybody needs to understand the scene will be chaotic," Gomes said. "One size does not fit all; it's fluid.

"It won't be a neat and orderly thing. Districts are committed to conducting intruder safety drills," he said. "Unlike a fire drill, the threat could be anywhere and is moving."

Gomes said safety at after-school programs also needs to be considered. MCOE serves more than 3,500 children in the ASSETS program throughout the county.

"We are here today to understand each other and to take away positive characteristics from what we do best," Pazin said. He called the Columbine school shooting a "watershed moment" for law enforcement.

For years police were trained to secure the perimeter at an incident. Now first-responders need to actively engage these shooters right away, Pazin said.

His department has had active-shooter procedures with all law enforcement agencies and the training procedures are accredited.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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