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Two Willows High students arrested in paintball gun prank gone bad
In an era of school shootings, even look-alike guns on campus are no joke.
Saturday's dance at Willows High School ended badly for two students who dressed in military-style camouflage clothes — complete with paintball sidearms and semi-automatic paintball rifles — as they approached the cafeteria where the event was being held.
But it could have ended much worse.
"Had it not been for the quality and experience of (Glenn County sheriff's Sgt. Todd James), there could very well have been a dead young man," Willows police Chief Bill Spears said. "It would be considered, in law enforcement terms, a good shooting, but it would have been an unbearable tragedy."
The students said afterward it was just a prank.
"In today's society, this kind of thing is unacceptable," said Willows High principal Jerry Smith. "I just don't know what else I can say. I've already yelled it loud enough."
Willows High students Justin Fortunato, 18, and a 17-year-old whose name is being withheld, have been cited with infractions for carrying look-alike weapons in public.
They also will face disciplinary action by Willows Unified School District for the ill-advised prank.
Smith said he had just left his office around 9 p.m. Saturday, when he saw the shadowy figures on the north end of the school.
He said it was just light enough to make out the clothing and what looked to him like real weapons.
"My first thought was that I have an active shooter," Smith said. "I did what I have been trained to do."
Smith called emergency dispatch, ran to the cafeteria and locked it down with the students safe inside.
"In my 30 years in education," he said, "I have never been more concerned than I was at that moment."
It was only after it was all over — adrenaline flowing — that it sank in what could have happened if the threat of school violence had been real.
"I got pretty emotional," said Smith.
April 20 marks the 13th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, in which 12 students and one teacher were killed in the school cafeteria by fellow students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
There have been several school shootings before and since, including one on Monday outside a Jewish school in France that left four people dead.
Although Smith didn't know who the shadowy figures were when he first spotted them, he knew they had spotted him about the same time.
Smith said the pair started running toward the cul-de-sac behind the Willows Police Department, where they were soon taken to ground at gunpoint by James.
Willows police officers and county deputies took about one minute to respond, said Spears.
The chief said the paintball guns looked exactly like the "real thing" and had the boys even inadvertently pointed them at the cops, it is possible officers would have fired.
Each of the boys carried one unloaded paintball rifle and an unloaded paintball pistol, although they never brandished the weapons or threatened any of the students that were assembled on campus for the dance, officials said.
After the incident, the juvenile was released to the custody of his parents. Fortunato was released at the scene, Spears said.
Fortunato, a Willows High School star athlete with no prior history of wrongdoing, apologized Monday to the community, his fellow students, as well as school and law enforcement officials.
"I foolishly, without thinking, decided to play a prank," Fortunato said in a statement. "I never had any intentions of hurting anyone."
Fortunato, who said he was planning to join the Navy after high school, said he doesn't know what will happen now, but hopes he will be forgiven.
Right now, he faces only a citation for openly displaying or exposing an imitation firearm, which is an infraction.
Smith said both of the boys were good students, but they will have to face disciplinary action, which has not yet been decided.
He said he hopes other students will learn and come to understand that even a prank that evokes the thought of school violence is no laughing matter.