A teacher at Taft Union High School in Taft, Calif., is being hailed as a hero by local officials for “talking down” the student who brought a 12-gauge shotgun to school Thursday morning, allegedly with at least two student targets in mind.
The incident – in which one student was critically injured and a student and teacher received minor injuries – is the latest to draw attention to school safety, less than a month after a gunman killed 20 elementary-school students and six educators, before killing himself in Newtown, Conn.
Halfway through first period, the 16-year-old suspect walked into the school’s science building, went to a second-floor classroom, and fired at a fellow 16-year-old, who was later reported to be in stable condition, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said at a press conference.
The shooter tried unsuccessfully to shoot another student, whom he named, and had perhaps 20 rounds of ammunition in his pockets, Sheriff Youngblood said. The teacher and a campus supervisor who showed up at the classroom during the incident engaged in a dialogue with the shooter – giving other students a chance to leave the classroom and ultimately leading the gunman to put his weapon down.
He was then taken into custody by Taft police, who responded within 60 seconds to 911 calls. A neighbor had reported seeing someone walk into the school with a gun.
The teacher and supervisor “knew not to let him leave that classroom with that shotgun,” Youngblood said. “This is a tragedy, but not as bad as we think it might have been.” He estimated about 28 students were in the classroom at the time of the shooting.
For parents in the small town, where about 900 students attend the high school, it was a harrowing morning, with echoes of Sandy Hook still in their minds. Some parents received calls from their children before official word came out from the school. One dad told a reporter from local ABC affiliate KERO-TV that his daughter called her mother and said she was in a closet and there was a shooter in the building.
After the victim was transported to a hospital, police searched and secured the building, and then parents were alerted that it was on lockdown. Later in the day, they were able to bring identification and pick their students up from the auditorium.
Just two hours before the shooting, staff at the school had been reviewing their emergency lockdown procedure, said interim superintendent William McDermott. Training and reviews of school safety are a continuous process in the district, he said.
The schools and police have a good relationship in Taft, said Taft Police Chief Ed Whiting. Normally an armed resource officer is at the high school, but he wasn’t there Thursday morning, because he had been snowed in.
About half of California’s high schools, 16 percent of its middle schools, and 5 percent of its elementary schools have police or resource officers on campus, and 83 percent of the officers at high schools are armed, according to a survey of 300 school districts by EdSource.org.
In the wake of the Newtown shootings, many lawmakers have proposed placing more armed officers in schools. Sixty-four percent of Americans support increasing a police presence in schools, while 29 percent oppose it, according to a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll conducted Jan. 2-7. Eight percent of respondents said they were “not sure.”
Thursday’s incident – in which the teacher was unarmed – will probably factor into the debate over proposals by the National Rifle Association and some lawmakers in various states to allow trained teachers to have concealed guns in their classrooms.
Teachers unions such as the American Federation of Teachers oppose such proposals. “Our public schools should not be armed fortresses. Efforts to arm educators and increase guns in our schools put educators and students at risk and undermine our ability to provide a safe and nurturing learning environment for students,” reads a statement with the group’s school safety recommendations. “If a school decides to bring police into schools, they should be part of the fabric of the school community, not simply a stationed armed guard.”
One issue of concern has been young people’s access to guns. A University of California, Irvine, study in Orange County, Calif., based on a 2003 survey of 176 students, found that nearly 27 percent had fired a gun and 43 percent said they had access to a gun. None of the students said they had brought a gun to school, but two had thought of using a gun at school.
In a national survey in 2011, just over 5 percent of high school students reported carrying a weapon to school in the past 30 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And just over 7 percent reported being threatened or injured with a weapon at school in the past 12 months.
Taft law-enforcement officials told reporters Thursday it was too early to comment on rumors that bullying may have been at play in this incident, or that the shooter had been previously suspended for having a list of students he wanted to harm.
Taft Union High School will be closed Friday, but counselors will be available to students, parents, or staff who want to come in to meet with them. Counselors will also be on hand Monday when school resumes, superintendent McDermott said.