TAFT, Calif. — A 16-year-old student armed with a shotgun walked into class in a rural California high school on Thursday and shot one student, fired at another and missed, and then was talked into surrendering by a teacher and another staff member, officials said.
The teen victim was in critical but stable condition, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood told a news conference. The sheriff said the teacher at Taft Union High School suffered a minor pellet wound to the head and declined treatment.
The gunman had as many as 20 rounds of ammunition in his pocket, the sheriff said.
When the shots were fired, the teacher tried to get the more than two dozen students out a back door and also engaged the shooter in conversation to distract him, Youngblood said. A campus supervisor responding to a call of shots fired also began talking to the gunman.
“They talked him into putting that shotgun down. He in fact told the teacher, ‘I don’t want to shoot you,’ and named the person that he wanted to shoot,” Youngblood said.
“The heroics of these two people goes without saying. … They could have just as easily … tried to get out of the classroom and left students, and they didn’t,” the sheriff said. “They knew not to let him leave the classroom with that shotgun.”
The shooter didn’t show up for first period, then interrupted the class of 28 students.
Investigators had not yet had a chance to interview the student and so had no immediate word on a motive or whether the attacker had a previous disciplinary record. Nor did they know where he got the shotgun.
The Sheriff’s Department did not release the boy’s name because he was a juvenile and had yet to be charged. But many students and community members said they knew the boy and said he was often teased, including Alex Patterson, 18, who went to Taft with the suspect before graduating last year.
“He comes off as the kind of kid who would do something like this,” Patterson said. “He talked about it a lot, but nobody thought he would.”
Trish Montes, who lived next door to the suspect, said he was “a short guy” and “small” who was teased about his stature by many, including the victim.
“Maybe people will learn not to bully people,” Montes said. “I hate to be crappy about it, but that kid was bullying him.”
Montes said her son had worked at the school and tutored the boy last year, sometimes walking with him between classes because he felt sorry for him.
“All I ever heard about him was good things from my son,” Montes said. “He wasn’t Mr. Popularity, but he was a smart kid. It’s a shame. My kid said he was like a genius. It’s a shame because he could have made something of himself.”
The wounded student was flown to a hospital in Bakersfield. Officials said a female student was hospitalized with possible hearing damage because the shotgun was fired close to her ear, and another girl suffered minor injuries during the scramble to flee when she fell over a table.
Officials said there’s usually an armed officer on campus, but the person wasn’t there because he was snowed in. Taft police officers arrived within 60 seconds of first reports.
Bakersfield television station KERO reported receiving phone calls from people inside the school who hid in closets.
About 900 students are enrolled at the high school, which includes ninth through 12th grades. Authorities went room by room through the school and expected to spend the day checking backpacks to make sure no other weapons were on campus.
Wilhelmina Reum, whose daughter Alexis Singleton is a fourth-grader at a nearby elementary school, got word of the attack while she was about 35 miles away in Bakersfield and immediately sped back to Taft.
“I just kept thinking this can’t be happening in my little town,” she told The Associated Press.
“I was afraid I was going to get hurt,” Alexis said. “I just wanted my mom to get here so I could go home.”
Taft is a community of fewer than 10,000 people amid oil and natural gas production fields about 120 miles northwest of Los Angeles.
The attack there came less than a month after a gunman massacred 20 children and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., then killed himself.
That shooting prompted President Barack Obama to promise new efforts to curb gun violence. Vice President Joe Biden, who was placed in charge of the initiative, said he would deliver new policy proposals to the president by next week.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in a statement that her father had attended Taft Union and she has visited the school over the years.
“At this moment my thoughts and prayers are with the victims, and I wish them a speedy recovery,” Feinstein said. “But how many more shootings must there be in America before we come to the realization that guns and grievances do not belong together?”
AP writers Robert Jablon and John Antczak in Los Angeles, and Juliet Williams in Sacramento contributed to this report.