STOCKTON, Calif. — Just one month before joining the California Highway Patrol, former EMT and Stockton Police Officer Salvador Cortez found himself in the middle of tragedy responding to what would be one of the most memorable and terrifying moments of his career.
What started as a normal Tuesday for students at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton on the morning of Jan. 17, 1989, would soon become a day of infamy. A lone gunman approached the campus firing off more than 100 rounds from a semi-automatic rifle killing five schoolchildren and wounding 32 others.
Cortez was among the first responders who arrived at the scene during the attack. He remembers the unprecedented chaos and lack of preparation to handle an active school shooter situation.
“In 1989, there was no active shooter protocol, there was no incident command system, there was no triage system and everybody showed up at the same time,” said Cortez. “I clearly remember treating patients while we could still hear the shots being fired by the shooter at Cleveland Elementary.”
The Cleveland Schoolyard massacre was considered the one of the nation's worse school shootings at the time.
”Back then they didn't call it an active shooter, but that phrase hadn't been coined yet,” said Cortez. “No one would have ever imagined that an active shooter event would have occurred back in 1989.”
Prior to the horrific incident, school shootings and mass shootings in general were a rare occurrence.
In recent years, schools shootings have become substantially more common. About 64% of school shootings in the U.S. since 1970 happened in the last 20 years and nearly 50% happened in the last decade, according to data from the Center for Homeland Defense and Security.
“I clearly remember the gentleman who was leading the first critical incident stress debriefing saying, ‘What you all should keep in mind is that despite all the horrific things that occurred, you'll probably never see another event like this in your life.’” said Cortez. “That was in 1989, and three years later I was at another one in Olivehurst, and since then there has just been a string of them.”
Cortez, who spent over 30 years on the force, has since dedicated the latter part of his career using his experiences to lead tactical active shooter training courses teaching police officers to effectively handle an active shooter situation and potentially save lives.
His course is hosted through TacMed Solutions, a tactical medicine and active shooter training service founded in 2003, and is the only eight-hour one-day active shooter scenario based course in Northern California.
“Most of the tactical medicine courses that you will see that are available, especially here in Northern California, are lecture-based,” said Cortez. “Our course differs in that we are lecture-based, but we emphasize the use of both skills and tactics, which are an important component to any active shooter response."
The course teaches police officers to provide security to injured victims while performing immediate lifesaving care, taking them out of the active area and getting them transported to a hospital in ample time. According to Cortez, this is a critical process in saving as many lives as possible.
“The number one reason people die in any traumatic event is loss of blood,” said Cortez. “60% of all mortality is as a result of a hemorrhage, and so we teach officers how to stop massive bleeding.”
The training will be hosted by Stockton Unified and officially offered to district police, school resource officers and allied agencies in multiple sessions at four Stockton high school campuses over the next two months.
Participating officers will learn both medical and strategical threat mitigation tactics though a series of on-campus active shooter simulations, along with volunteer student participants.
According to Cortez, the course will be broken down into multiple sections. First officers will go through a short lecture explaining course basics, then they will be broken off into teams and run through six different multi-repetition scenarios dealing with active shooters and critical incidents.
This will be the first time this course has been hosted in Stockton Unified and, according to SUSD Police Department spokesperson Angie Andrews, will hopefully not be the last.
“It’s a great opportunity not only for our allied agencies to come together and work together, but it also provides an advanced course and compliance for our officers to actually learn how to respond to critical situations on campus and to keep our campuses safe,” said Andrews.
The district will require all of its officers to attend the course as well as fund the necessary enrollment fees. Police from other regional agencies were also invited to enroll on a first come first served basis at $300 per officer.
“The very unique thing about this situation is we have agencies outside of this county, such as West Sacramento and Stanislaus County, all of those agencies are coming to train with us,” said Andrews. “So not only do we get to see their experience, how they respond to situations and deal with the situation in their area, but we also get to gain training and learning altogether.”
The 8-hour course will be held Oct. 6 at Stagg High School, Oct. 7 at Edison High School, Nov. 21 at Franklin High School, and Nov. 22 at Caesar Chavez High School.
“These specific dates that were chosen a while in advance are actually during the time when our schools are not in session so students are out on break,” said Andrews. “The campus will be clear and it provides anyone that's taking this course to see how our campus is, where the layout is and to give them additional training of going to different campuses because every campus is different in our school district.”
According to SUSD, the first round will prioritize its resource officers for attendance who are typically on campus most often when school is in session. The rest of the department will be introduced on the later dates.
“Hopefully we get to continue this,” said Andrews. “Every year we always get new sets of officers, which is great because it adds new experience, but we want to provide this advanced training for them so when they respond to critical situations on our campus, they're ready to go.”
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