Citrus draws fire for considering simulated gunman drill

Citrus College administration raised some eyebrows and hackles recently when preliminary plans were made to add a dose of reality to an active shooter drill. 

Citrus College Faculty Union President Paul Swatzel says he first heard of what he considered to be a dicey idea at a March 9 Steering Committee meeting.

According to Mr. Swatzel, Arvid Spor—vice president of academic affairs and interim vice president of student services—shared that a Glendora Police Officer, dressed like a student and stationed at a campus building, would be present at an upcoming drill. Mr. Swatzel said Mr. Spor told attendees the officer would pull out a gun and begin firing blanks.

“I had said something to the effect of, ‘This isn’t a good idea. What if a faculty member, not knowing, hits this undercover officer with a chair?’” The math professor told the COURIER.

Mr. Swatzel said he called Mr. Spor after the meeting and asked if he could send an email to faculty giving them a heads-up about the ammunitions simulation. He says he was asked to wait until the administrator had an opportunity to send out his own campus-wide email.

Mr. Spor sent out an email, but it didn’t mention the blank-shooting contingency, according to Mr. Swatzel. Concerned, he sent out his own email.

“Fellow faculty. This is an FYI with respect to the lockdown drill on March 19. I have been informed that there will be a Glendora Police Officer who will be dressed as a student. The officer will be armed with a gun with blanks,” his message read. “This is part of the drill to make it more realistic. This was not disclosed in the email from Dr. Spor. However, I did receive permission to notify you as I feel it is in the best interest of our faculty.”

Citrus College Superintendent/President Geraldine Perri had been out of town for a number of days. She was back in time to preside over a President’s Council meeting on the morning of Wednesday, March 11. Mr. Swatzel said he went to the meeting and found out the undercover officer idea that had been floated “had been cancelled.”

That same day, Mr. Spor sent out an email to the Citrus College community noting that the upcoming lockdown—which was set for 8 a.m. to noon yesterday, Thursday, March 19—would “not include the use of simulations as part of the drill.” 

A simulated attack was never planned, only briefly talked about, according to Citrus College Director of Communications Paula Green.

“Initial planning discussion took place as to whether or not the use of any blanks at all should be a component of our drill. However, after conferring with the Superintendent/President, it was confirmed that such a component was not to be included…” Ms. Green said in an email to the COURIER. “If the decision to use blanks were to be included in the drill, the information would have been appropriately disseminated to the broad college community to ensure the safety of all students, faculty and staff.”

Ms. Green confirmed that the spreading story of a potential ammunitions simulation caused nervousness. “Unfortunately, as we all know nowadays, just the mere discussion of potential threats on campus may evoke fear and anxiety in some individuals,” she said. 

Only two days intervened between the Steering Committee meeting and the notification that no blanks would be fired in the drill. Nonetheless, the story made news, appearing in an article on the Campus Reform website, a publication produced by the conservative think-tank the Leadership Institute.

Citrus College sources cited in the story agreed that it had been imprudent to entertain the idea of faux gunfire on campus with students present.

“I do not think they should have any blanks like that going [off] near [campus], because, who knows, maybe someone may actually have a gun and shoot back. You know, if I had one, and I heard someone shooting at students, I wouldn’t think twice about taking him out,” the Campus Reform story quoted Bruce Stoner, a faculty member in the Information Technology Department, as saying.

Phoneix McCoy, a US Air Force veteran and vice president of the Associated Students of Citrus College, pointed out in the article that the college is home to some 100 veterans trying to attain an education while assimilating back to civilian life. Because many veterans suffer from PTSD, she is quoted as saying, “it’s irresponsible to have an active shooter on campus.”

Ms. Green characterized the Campus Reform article as misinformation, and noted that the college has asked for a retraction. Still, the article has gained traction, being linked to by the hyper-local media source Patch and the decidedly partisan website, which dubbed the blanks concept “the dumbest idea ever.” 

The article said Mr. Spor told Campus Reform “that the local police department and a private consulting firm ‘recommended’ using an active shooter during the drill who would fire blanks.”

Not so, according to Glendora Police Department Captain Joe Ward. “Citrus College approached us. They said they wanted to do a notification drill and asked us about an active shooter component,” he said.

Captain Ward said that by Thursday, March 12, police department representatives had informed Citrus College representatives “there was not a feasible way to do this on campus.” He said a mutual decision was made to forgo any kind of simulation involving a shooter.

The Glendora Police Department has done drills in which a department member poses as a shooter, but they have taken place in a controlled situation. One of these was held several years ago at Citrus during spring break.

“We do not put on a training that we feel is unsafe. Our officers are not allowed to have live weapons during training, and we make sure there is no ammunition,” Captain Ward said. “We are very concerned about bystanders. We want everyone involved in the training to be a willing participant. It needs to be voluntary, and there are briefings ahead of time.”

“Colleges, in their defense, are not experts on what they can safely do. That’s why they asked,” Captain Ward added.

Mr. Swatzel said he believes Mr. Spor and anyone else who may have pondered the undercover officer scenario had good intentions. “It was just poorly thought- out,” he said.

Citrus is not alone in its vigilance. On Friday, March 13, Claremont High School students watched a six-minute video during the Wolfcast student news program titled “Run, Hide or Fight,” which advises viewers on what to do if they find themselves under siege at a school or any public location. It was followed by a discussion on student safety in which students were encouraged to tweet any questions using the hashtag #AskWolfcast.

Generations of students have received training on how to keep safe in the advent of emergencies. What’s new is that people are now being told that, in some situations, fighting is the only answer.

“Sometimes students will say, ‘Can we leave campus?’ The answer is yeah, if there is an active shooter and you can run and get away, run,” CHS Principal Brett O’Connor explained.

If you can’t run, the film advises students and staffers to hide. “What does that look like?” Mr. O’Connor posed. “Cell phones are off, students are underneath desks, all doors are locked, the lights are off and you put any barricades you can in front of the door.”

If those measures fail and a shooter enters the room, Mr. O’Connor said, “Look around for anything you have near you that you can fight with—a fire extinguisher, a chair. The thought is, listen, if they’re coming in the room, you can’t wait for police. Most of the time, these active act very quickly. You’ve got to fight for your survival at that point.”

This new mindset, in which people are advised to get aggressive if needed, makes the idea of rounds being fired on a campus—even blanks—risky. What is also risky is to ignore any mental health issues a student may be experiencing, Mr. O’Connor said. 

“We are also talking about how students can be our best defense on keeping a safe campus,” he said. “If a student is withdrawn, if their behavior changes—if they talk about killing themselves or others—we want students to report that to an adult. This is our first line of good, pro-active behavior.” 

—Sarah Torribio


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