The campus of Lodi High School is silent on a clear March day, the quad eerily empty.
Suddenly, a roaring gunshot shatters the stillness.
A SWAT team bursts onto the quad from the school’s front entrance as frightened students run out of the cafeteria, screaming. A second gun shot thunders through the air, followed by a third soon afterward. As the SWAT team proceeds in formation toward the cafeteria, a shooter leaps out from behind a tree 50 feet to the right, firing a gun at the officers.
In a flash, six SWAT members wheel toward him, gunning the shooter down in a hail of fire. The rest of the team barely breaks stride, heading toward the source of the first three gun blasts.
Just outside the cafeteria doors, a female student holds another girl who is covered in blood.
“Somebody, help!” one of them screams.
But the SWAT team members can’t stop yet — they’ve got to clear all threats from the area. A second shooter is discovered in the cafeteria, and is quickly neutralized by SWAT. Officers continue to search the building for more suspects, but find no one else. The area is safe at last; now there are hurt students to take care of.
“We’re code four,” Lodi Police Sgt. Mike Den says to the SWAT team, giving the signal that the situation is under control. The officers lower their weapons and relax. One team member takes his helmet off, a smile on his face.
“A second shooter,” he says, “that was good.”
The entire nightmare scenario has been nothing more than a training exercise; no need to call Lodi High administration or alert the authorities. The SWAT team’s weapons were filled with Simunition rounds, which are essentially specialized paintballs. And all the “injured” teenagers were drama students, except for the second shooter: that honor went to Lodi High Assistant Principal Jeff Palmquist.
“They were looking for somebody to play that part and I volunteered,” Palmquist said. “I thought it would be fun to see how they do what they do, but I also thought it would be good to give me a perspective for ... what would it be like if, God forbid, that happened.”
The SWAT drill was part of a day-long training exercise on Wednesday, organized by the Lodi Police Department. Teams from police departments in Lodi, Stockton, Yuba City and Elk Grove and the Sheriff’s departments of San Joaquin, Yuba and Amador counties all participated. At different locations throughout the city, officers and deputies will be tested on marksmanship, physical fitness, serving search warrants, open field searches and SWAT team situations.
Detective Carlos Fuentes served as one of the Lodi cops in charge of the training at Lodi High. He competed with the SWAT team last year, but is simply supervising all the teams this time. He said the department hopes to make the event an annual tradition.
At Lodi High, teams are dealing with two scenarios: The first is a school shooting. There’s been a single shooter (played by Palmquist) for this scenario in most run-throughs, but Lodi police decided to mix in a curveball: a surprise second shooter. The team being tested, Elk Grove Police Department’s SWAT team, handled the unexpected threat with ease.
“We just give them a scenario,” Fuentes said. “(The teams) use their tactics and they kind of critique themselves.”
“They’re very fast,” Palmquist said of the various SWAT teams. “I’m impressed with how accurate they are. ... I’ve been hit from 10 to 12 yards away, when the only thing showing is my hand holding the gun, and they’ll hit me in the hand.”
Gianna Nemie, a senior drama student at Lodi High, participated in the event as one of the fleeing students. Nemie took part in a similar event three years ago, which took place at a former mental institution.
“It was really a good acting exercise,” she said of the experience. “I decided it’d be fun to go again.”
During a couple of run-throughs of the shooting scenario, a supposedly gravely injured Nemie was carried out by a SWAT team member, and dragged out a separate time.
“Usually I’m the one who’s either dying or dead, because apparently I’m good at that,” she said with a laugh. “(The scenario) is helpful for us because if this actually ever happens, we know what to do.”
The second scenario at Lodi High is called the slow methodical search, Fuentes said. The SWAT teams must search one section of the school for a man who has taken his ex-wife, who teaches at the school, as a hostage.
On Wednesday, Officer Ryan Holz was playing the deranged ex-husband, with Officer Heather Metcalf as the damsel in distress. SWAT teams had to quietly search each classroom in the area, then save Metcalf once they finally found the hostage-taker.
Once inside, there was another twist in store for the SWAT team: Metcalf would cry out that Holz had a gun, when he was actually unarmed.
When Elk Grove’s SWAT team quietly entered the room, guns raised, they didn’t listen to Metcalf and held their fire. So although Holz was forced to kneel and be handcuffed, at least he was spared being pelted with paintballs.
The same can’t be said for Palmquist.
“I’ve been shot in various parts of the body today,” he said.
Contact reporter Fernando Gallo at firstname.lastname@example.org.