SUSD sergeant talks on 30th anniversary of Cleveland School shooting

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Stockton Unified School District sergeant Rob Young. PHOTO COURTESY ROB YOUNG

It’s been three decades, but Rob Young still has a vivid memory of Jan. 17, 1989.

“There’s been so much that’s happened since, but at the same time it feels like just yesterday in a lot of ways,” Young said.

The day began normally for Young, a first-grader at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, with his mother walking him to school.

“I remember her saying, ‘I don’t have a good feeling about today, I want to keep you home.’ I was excited about getting to school and playing with my friends, we had a big kickball game planned for that recess,” he said.

The kickball game didn’t go as planned for long.

A gunman entered the school’s campus during recess and began firing on the playground with an AK-47 and two handguns, killing five children and injuring 29, including Young.

“He was just a matter of yards from us when he took a kneeling stance and opened fire,” said Young, who endured a bullet passing through his foot and a bullet fragment getting lodged in his chest, where it remains to this day.

At 6, Young remarkably had the instinct to take cover inside a classroom until the firing stopped with the gunman committing suicide.

Young didn’t immediately grasp what had happened.

“My initial thought was that I was pretty angry, because I had just got those shoes for Christmas. I thought I was going to get in trouble because my clothes were ruined,” Young said with a slight chuckle.

“I turn to my friend Scottie and go, ‘Look at my shoe.’ He says, ‘Robbie look at my leg,’ he pulls up his pant leg and he’s got a pretty good-sized hole in his thigh. He looked at me and he goes, ‘I think we’ve been shot.’ And that’s when the fear set in, that’s when things really started making sense.”

After receiving paramedic attention on the school’s front lawn, Young spent three days at the hospital, followed by a month at home before returning to school.

He attended weekly counseling for seven years after.

“It definitely helped me process those emotions,” he said of counseling. “It taught me to talk about it, not hold it in, and that’s kind of how I’ve been able to work through the tragic ordeal.”

The Cleveland School shooting didn’t sway Young from pursuing his dream of becoming a police officer, but in fact helped confirm it was what he should become.

“My dad passed away last December, but he used to tell me that even before the shooting, he remembered me being a little 3-year old saying, ‘Daddy I want to be a cop,’” Young said. “I always felt I was going to be a police officer, but the shooting definitely helped push me in that direction, because of how safe I felt when the cops finally showed up. I wanted to help people feel safe.”

Young graduated from the Delta College Police Academy in 2003 and in 2004, at age 21, he began his career with the Stockton Unified School District (SUSD) Police Department.

He eventually transferred to the Union City Police Department and worked various positions over nine years, including hostage negotiator and crime scene investigator.

In 2013 Young was one of seven officers to respond to a shooter walking through a Union City neighborhood with a .45 caliber pistol and a machete.

“Ultimately I was one of the officers to fire on him after he refused to drop the gun and took aim at us. Luckily no one else was hurt or shot other than the suspect,” said Young.

Young returned to the SUSD Police Department as a sergeant in 2016, a title he’s thrilled to hold today.

“To give back to the community in this role, especially with my story and surviving a school shooting, to be able to come back and work for them is amazing,” Young said.

“I really enjoy working with Rob, he’s a very passionate guy. I have 100 percent confidence in him, I’d follow him into pretty much anything,” said SUSD Police Officer David Rose, who began as an officer the same week in 2016 that Young was hired as a sergeant.

A specific area of focus for him given his experiences, Young is certified in training officers on active shooter situation protocol.

“Every time I hear about an active shooter incident, it brings me back to the Cleveland School shooting, and being a little boy, remembering how scared I was. I don’t ever want anybody to feel like that, and I take that very seriously,” he said. “No one ever thinks it’s going to happen here, but I’m living proof that it’s happened. I want to be able to prevent something like that from happening, so I want my guys in the area to have the best training and know-how to respond to a threat like that.”

“What I get from him is a deeper understanding of what’s going on inside those situations,” Rose said of Young’s trainings. “We all train for those situations and know how to look at them from the outside, but every one of them will be different. With Rob, he understands the thought processes and what the chaos inside the storm looks like, so he has a very unique perspective of how to handle those incidents and what steps can be taken to prevent them.”

There’s no concrete way to prevent school shootings, but Young believes safety measures like buzzer systems, school cameras leading directly to the sheriff’s office and quick means of communication with police will help greatly.

Since Young became sergeant, the SUSD Police Department has utilized “Share911” software that allows teachers to instantly mass message the school and police.

“Any employee in the district can put a school on lockdown immediately. Stuff like that is going to make a huge difference. Seconds matter,” Young said.

Like the bullet fragment in his chest, Young carries the memory of the Cleveland School shooting daily. It’s a reminder of his chosen duty to keep the campuses of his hometown safe for students, including his two children, Christian and Alissa. But as Young looks back, he imagines he’d be in this position today even if his mom had held him home from school on that fateful day 30 years ago.

“I think my life might have been the same, just without having to go through that, I’d still be right here doing what I’m doing,” he said. “I felt like it was a calling. I love working with students and keeping schools safe.”