One of the school resource officers had been on the job for only three days.
The other two veteran SROs for the Fullerton PD were getting ready to attend athe Orange County Gang Investigators Association’s monthly meeting.
Then, at just after 9:30 a.m. on Feb. 1, their day took a dramatic turn.
Word came to FPD that an adult female attending a soccer game at Troy High School the day before overheard two students talking about planning a gun massacre at Troy that would be “bigger than Columbine,” the infamous 1999 school shooting in Colorado that claimed 13 lives.
Officer Andrew Coyle, Troy’s SRO for nearly three years, sprung to action.
So did Sunny Hill H.S. SRO Michael Yang, who was on his way to Troy to head to the gang meeting with Coyle.
Also summoned to help with the investigation was Officer Jose Paez, who had moved from patrol to the Community Services Bureau as an SRO at Fullerton High School just two days earlier, on Jan. 30.
The three officers have been showered with thank you cards from students and staffers at Troy H.S. and throughout the Fullerton Joint Union High School District for conducting a detailed and thorough investigation that led to the arrest of two male 16-year-old Troy students on suspicion of making criminal threats and conspiracy to commit a felony.
The investigation is ongoing as forensic specialists continue to scour computers and other electronic devices seized from the boys and from their homes in Anaheim for evidence to prove they were serious about carrying out the threat.
The juveniles also have been suspended from Troy High School and face expulsion hearings in the near future.
Paez, Coyle and Yang said this week they are proud of the investigation — which included help from the FPD’s Gang Unit as well as its Directed Enforcement Team —- and are grateful for the support Troy High School and the greater Fullerton community has shown them and the FPD as a whole.
“They are as fine a department and group of officers as I have ever known,” Troy Principal William V. Mynster said. “Andrew Coyle is an exceptional officer and works very well with our students and community. His performance in his SRO role this past week is an example of his effectiveness and dedication to our students and the community.”
News of the shooting plot shocked the community of Troy H.S., which has some 2,800 students and is known nationally for its academic excellence, particularly its Troy Tech and International Baccalaureate programs.
The names of the two suspects have not been made public because they are juveniles and state law forbids their release.
Following their arrests, the two friends — described by Coyle as having a low profile at Troy — were booked into Orange County Juvenile Hall.
Coyle and his two fellow SROs praised the woman at the soccer game for going to authorities after overhearing the two boys talk about shooting up Troy H.S.
“She took the information and ran with it,” Coyle said. “Sometimes a person may hear something and think it’s nothing, but this is a classic example of if you hear something, say something. What these two boys were talking about may have taken place weeks or months later, or maybe next week — we don’t know.”
Following the arrests of the two boys, Troy H.S. Honors English Teacher Kelly Lutes had her students create thank you cards for the FPD officers.
As SROs, Coyle, Yang and Paez walk a fine line between keeping schools safe while also serving as positive role models for students.
“Our goal is not to go out and suppress crime like officers do in patrol,” Coyle said. “Our goal is to to create trusting relationships with the student community, serve as role models, and keep the campus community safe.”
Coyle explained that for first-time offenders, diversion — through such programs as the Orange County Bar Association’s “Shortstop” — is preferred over incarceration.
“Studies show that if a juvenile is put through the criminal justice system, his or her chances of continuing down the wrong road increases,” Coyle said.
“Communicating with students is the key,” Paez said. “Letting them know we are there for their safety is our No. 1 priority, as well as letting them know that behind our uniforms, we’re people too.”
Said Yang: “The more kids see us around campus, the more they feel comfortable with us.”
The woman who reported the soccer game discussion to authorities also snapped photos of the two boys.
The quality of the photos was poor — only side views or portions of the boys’ faces were visible — but working with the SROs, Fullerton Joint Union High School District and Troy High School officials began an investigation and eventually were able to identify the suspects.
Troy H.S. Assistant Principals pulled the boys out of separate classrooms while the SROs and other school officials waited in the hallway. Coyle and Yang interviewed the boys separately and collected statements that corroborated what the reporting party told police.
The SROs then fanned out across Troy H.S. to talk to other students, some of whom provided the officers with more information about the suspects.
On the Thursday and Friday after the arrests, Coyle, Paez and Yang tracked down some students at their respective high schools who posted on Snapchat, Instagram and other social media platforms illustrations of guns and comments about how they had discovered the suspects’ plans to shoot up Troy H.S.
While it tuned out that the students were joking, Coyle said, the officers still spent a large portion of the day vetting the veracity of the statements to determine if there was any involvement.
Coyle reminded students, and the public at large, that making threats — or joking about them — is serious business.
As Paez put it: “We have to take these things extremely seriously and be very thorough with our investigations. In this case, it was one of those things we caught really early, and I’m proud of the work we did.”