In the estimation of Principal Issaic Gates, the planned active shooter drill conducted at San Marino High School last week could not have gone better for his students.
Beginning at 12:25 p.m. last Wednesday with what sounded like two fireworks exploding, the drill sent students where they had been directed to go in the event of a real lockdown. Instantly, students filling the quad area for lunch scattered, some crying out in alarm, to find shelter in a classroom or otherwise flee campus.
“That was a bit different, yeah?” Gates asked of his entire student body, which gathered in Neher Auditorium afterward for a debriefing. “The idea was to have you prepared, not scared.”
With police officers, firefighters and school officials observing, the students for the most part ditched their backpacks and other belongings following the two controlled blasts (which were flashbang devices) and Gates’ P.A. announcement that the school was going under lockdown. Those on the west side of campus took shelter with teachers in West Wing and second-floor classrooms, while those on the east side of campus followed instructions to flee campus and head east.
Meanwhile, Cpl. Kenric Wu with the San Marino Police Department posed as the drill’s gunman, prowling the campus with an AR-15 (loaded with blanks and with a blocked barrel), periodically firing toward the ground. Some students and faculty were tabbed beforehand to pose as wounded victims requiring medical care and extraction.
Eventually, other SMPD officers, with backup from neighboring agencies (San Gabriel, Alhambra and South Pasadena police departments) and with the bird’s-eye view of a Pasadena Police Department helicopter, entered campus, searching for the gunman and identifying those needing assistance from San Marino Fire Department, whose firefighters double as EMTs and paramedics.
“You now have more tools in your toolbox in case something happens,” Police Chief John Incontro told students following the drill.
Students were encouraged to ask questions once in Neher Auditorium. One girl asked why she and her friends were told to leave their usual lunch spot if this drill was supposed to simulate a real situation.
“We thought if you were outside seeing some of the action, we wanted you to have that experience,” Gates explained. “That is a very unnatural noise in this environment and we wanted you to be able to hear that. In that first 5-7 seconds, you’re trying to determine what that noise is and then you have maybe 20 seconds to make possibly the most important decision in your life.”
The San Marino Unified School District plans to evaluate successes of the drill and identify areas for improvement, with help from both outside experts and also surveys from students that were made available later in the day Wednesday.
“It’s going to be important to us to know how you feel about our campus and it’s going to be important for us to know how you felt about the drill,” Gates told students.
Superintendent Alex Cherniss, who joined other district officials, parents and observers atop the SMHS roof to watch the exercise, expressed both hope that students took home the lessons learned from the drill and disappointment for the need to even conduct the drill to begin with.
“Most teachers don’t get into this profession for what we experienced here today, but we are forced in today’s day and age to prepare for situations like this,” he said.
The drill already had been planned, but its purpose was magnified earlier in February after a gunman killed 17 teachers and students at a school in Parkland, Florida, using an AR-15 rifle. Days after that, a student in Whittier was arrested for allegedly threatening a school shooting. The national debate regarding gun rights and restrictions continues.
On that topic, one student asked Gates, whose father is in law enforcement and school resource officer, for his thoughts on the idea of arming teachers or faculty as a possible deterrent.
“I personally believe in leaving the weaponry up to the experts,” he said.