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Villaraldo joined the Forest Grove Police Department in 2005  and brings a parent mentality to the position as a father of three school-aged children. With a gun in his hand and a bulletproof vest protecting his vital organs, Ernesto Villaraldo entered a mixed-grade English class at Forest Grove High School, looking for a potential school shooter.


Don't make any sudden movements and keep your hands where I can see them, the Forest Grove police officer instructed the startled students.

Soft-spoken and friendly, Villaraldo is the School Resource Officer (SRO) posted at the high school. Typically seen patrolling the hallways, giving high-fives or sharing a laugh with students and faculty, he now stood fully prepared to use lethal force in a classroom full of teenagers.

It was Oct. 2, 2015, one day after a deadly mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, and a FGHS student had just reported seeing a gun sticking out of a boy's waistband as people passed each other in the halls between classes.

Just the previous week, the school had practiced a lockdown drill at exactly the same time, according to Principal Karen O'Neill. Now they were facing the real possibility of a school shooting.

Would their training and methods be effective? Would they be able to find the student and prevent another tragedy? They were about to find out.

The lockdown button

A half-hour before entering that classroom, Villaraldo had been in his office checking email and listening to voicemails when he was suddenly called to O'Neill's office. There, accompanied by a friend, was the girl who'd reported the sighting.

The girl had told O'Neill she didn't know the boy's name. But within five minutes, O'Neill had located him using the girl's description and video replay from the school's security cameras.

As Villaraldo arrived at her office, O'Neill was directing someone to press the lockdown button — an Oreo-sized red button in a case on the wall outside her office — automatically locking the school's exterior doors.

O'Neill then announced the lockdown over the intercom. Throughout the school, teachers all immediately locked their classroom doors and windows and turned off their lights as students shuffled into the corners and an eerie, unusual silence settled over the building.NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: TRAVIS LOOSE - School Resource Officer Ernesto Villaraldo typically keeps an eye on student activity at Forest Grove High School. But during an emergency, like the one on Oct. 2, he takes on a more serious role. 'In those moments, you know what youre supposed to do -- what you train for,' he said. 'But they dont prepare you for a specific event, like stepping into a classroom full of teenagers with a drawn weapon.'

Villaraldo began trying to track the path of the accused student through the halls on video replay. As other officers arrived, he handed off that job and took to the halls himself, strategically stationing several officers at different points in the building while awaiting word of the student's location.

"If I could have had an army in there, I would have had an army," he said.

About 20 minutes after the girl's report, a classroom was identified and Villaraldo headed for it. For the first time in his three years as SRO, he unholstered his gun on school grounds.

They call him Ernie

Officially, Villaraldo's job is to diffuse situations between students, keep an eye on any illegal activity, and maintain a presence by interacting and staying involved with students when they're out of their classrooms.

Unofficially, he'll do anything and everything necessary to protect the kids he oversees, and many of them know it.

He'll call for students to slow down if they charge down a flight of stairs at full speed, for example. He once agreed to escort a student to the Homecoming Father-Daughter dance because her dad had a schedule conflict. Another time, he sought out a student who had skipped school in order to give her a heartfelt talking to on the importance of taking education seriously.

Sometimes, a parent will call and ask for him to "scare their kids straight" with a fake arrest or a stern lecture, Villaraldo said. But "I don't want to instill fear in any kids."

For kids in trouble, he said, "I'd rather talk about what they did and how they could do it better. I don't think I could scare them anyway. I'm not a very scary guy."Villaraldo spent nine years in the U.S. Army reserves before taking the SRO position at the high school.

Though pointed at the ground, the gun in his hand probably upped the "scary" factor when he entered the darkened classroom Oct. 2. Villaraldo had chosen to take the lead in retrieving the student, hoping that "teachers and students would be more comfortable to see a familiar face," he said.

Upon entering, Villaraldo identified the student and asked him to stand while keeping his hands visible.

He cautioned the others not to make any negative assumptions about the student and told them multiple students were being questioned.

Back in the hallway, Villaraldo patted down the student, found no weapon and escorted him to the office. As they talked along the way, Villaraldo sensed the student seemed more confused than scared.

The parental impulse

The Oct. 2 incident turned out to be a false alarm. The 15-year-old female student had made up the report and was arrested by Forest Grove police for doing so.

But at the time it was happening, students, staff, police officers and parents all reacted as if it were real. That has given school and police authorities a golden opportunity to identify what went wrong and what went right with the response.

O'Neill was impressed with how both students and staff handled the situation. "The response was amazing," she said.

Forest Grove police, too, responded instantly, screeching up to the school minutes after Villaraldo called for backup.

There was only one big problem with the community's response to the incident: Parents.FGHS Campus Security Guard Joe Guerra (left) shares a laugh with Ernesto Villaraldo during the schools second lunch break. Guerra is an extra pair of eyes, helping Villaraldo keep watch over the schools 2,000 students.

As they began getting panicked, confusing text messages from their teenagers, hundreds of parents rushed to the school and massed outside its locked doors, increasing both the confusion and the danger of the situation.

Nathan Seable, chair of the city's Public Safety Advisory Commission (PSAC), understands that impulse. Although his children aren't yet teenagers, he knows how he'd have reacted if someone reported a potential shooter at their school: "I'd grab my guns and rush down there."

Communication breakdown

Seable's response is understandable but it's exactly the wrong thing to do, said Forest Grove Police Chief Janie Schutz. By rushing to the school, she said, parents can block or slow down the law enforcement professionals who need to be at the front lines of the crisis.

"We understand parents are anxious, but the best thing they can do is stay home," said Connie Potter, chief of staff for the Forest Grove School District.

The lockdown was lifted by 10:45 a.m. The district posted a letter online explaining the incident between noon and 1 p.m.

But for some parents that wasn't soon enough, said O'Neill, who also sent home a physical letter with students at the end of the day.

"You can never communicate fast enough for parents," Potter said. "We try to provide information as fast as we can, but the priority is to handle the emergency. If we're too quick, information can be incorrect."

Texts and Facebook posts were already promoting a flood of misinformation, O'Neill said.

Adding to the confusion, one student actually suffered an asthma attack during the lockdown and required an ambulance, which rolled up while many worried parents were still milling outside the school.

Nearly 600 of the school's 2,000 students opted to go home after the lockdown was lifted.

"The thing that really hit home for us was seeing the panic," O'Neill said. "A number of students were visibly shaken."

Prepare for 'What if'

O'Neill, who has a child of her own attending the school, agrees that students should communicate with their parents. "But they should only communicate what they know — first and utmost that they're safe."

Villaraldo, too, understands the parent's perspective because his own son went through a lockdown at Glencoe High School in Hillsboro two years ago. Villaraldo heard the call over the radio and fought to control his concern.

"My instinct as a father was to respond," Villaraldo said. "But I had to trust the Hillsboro School District and police department were doing everything to keep the kids safe."

Texting back and forth with his son calmed him a bit because his son made it clear that he was doing fine.

Since the Oct. 2 incident, school faculty and staff have had a number of meetings, some of which included students and law enforcement, to discuss what went well and what can be better.

The school district sent home an informational letter this week, for example, detailing the standard protocol for responding to such an emergency (see sidebar), as well as instructions for how parents can stay informed.

Plans for a town meeting are also being discussed, but no dates have been set at this time, O'Neill said.

"We prepare for the worst and hope for the best," she said. "Everybody has got to be prepared for 'what if.'"

'I love you guys'

On Sept. 27, 2006, 53-year-old Duane Roger Morrison walked into Platte Canyon High School in Colorado with two pistols and an alleged bomb.

He took six female students hostage and sexually assaulted them over the next four hours. During that time, 16-year-old Emily Keyes managed to send two text messages to her parents: "I love you guys," and "I love u guys. k?"

Morrison released four of the girls but shot and killed Emily later when she tried to flee during a gunfight with police.Forest Grove School District Chief of Staff Connie Potter shows off the standard response poster now on display in every classroom and office in the district.

In 2009, Emily's parents created the "I Love U Guys" Foundation, which through partnerships with law enforcement and public safety entities developed a Standard Response Protocol for schools to use in a variety of emergency situations.

In a lockdown, for example, students are instructed to"move away from sight; maintain silence; do not open the door."

There is also information related to natural hazards, lockouts and evacuations.

The information comes in an easy-to-read chart that promotes standard terms everyone can understand.

Neil Armstrong Middle School adopted this approach last year and the rest of the district, including the high school, adopted it at the beginning of this year.

-- Travis Loose

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