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Preparing for the worst: Officers navigate lifelike scenarios at elementary school

The rapid pop-pop-pop sounds of gunfire and frenzied officers' voices demonstrated the seriousness of training Wednesday night to prepare police for someone using a gun on a school campus.

About 20 Merced Police Department officers used the Tenaya Middle School campus for the first of four training sessions to confront what are called "active shooters" -- people intent on killing as many people as they can.

Instead of live ammunition and regular service revolvers, officers used 9 mm paint marker guns as they searched Tenaya classrooms and ultimately engaged the shooter in a volley of gunfire. Training for such an incident has been standard procedure since 2000, in the aftermath of the Columbine school massacre and other mass killings.

Sgt. Chris Goodwin conducted Wednesday's drill. He took a 36-hour instructor course on active shooter training five years ago, an eight-hour refresher course two years ago and estimates he has probably taught 400 hours' of active shooter classes.

Teams of three officers were mock-dispatched to the school from the nearby South Station, searched what turned out to be an empty classroom and then confronted another officer playing a shooter. The shooter, portrayed by Officer Kalvin Haygood, was hit in the head during the first encounter but ultimately led from the school in handcuffs, adding to the scenario's realism.

School resource officer Steve Smith said his heart was pumping as he and Officer Brian Saelee went from wing-to-wing looking for the shooter. Along the way they encountered Officer Joe Henderson, playing the role of a teacher directing them to where the shots were being fired. Officers quickly searched and handcuffed Henderson, not knowing at first if he was friend or foe.

Using a separate radio channel, dispatchers directed the officers to the campus where they crouched, guns drawn, until they learned where the shooter was located. Goodwin met with officers later to debrief them on their steps and the dispatchers' log will be scripted and analyzed to see if proper procedures were followed. Sergeants Curt Gorman and Scott Skinner and Lt. Bimley West acted as incident commanders, deploying officers to the school and summoning other emergency responders.

Cmdr. Floyd Higdon said a school shooting is something the department has to be ready for.

"We would be negligent if we didn't," Higdon said. "It's a skill, not something you can do at the spur of the moment."

Officer Dan Dabney said the drill provided some exciting moments, confirmed by Adrenalin-charged radio transmissions by responding officers.

Dan Richardson, school resource officer at Hoover and Tenaya middle schools, helped put the active shooting scenario together, saying it is great training. Richardson set off the school's burglar alarm to add to the simulated confusion responding officers would face responding to a distress call at the school.

The objective is to find and neutralize a shooter as quickly as possible before he or she can inflict even more casualties. In the first two drills of the evening, more than a dozen paintball rounds were exchanged each time between officers and the shooter. The shots sting and can leave welts, but no serious or lasting injury.

All the department's officers, including the newest trainees, have gone through four hours of active shooter classroom training, Goodwin said, and a number of officers have more exposure to the subject.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

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