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A jittery day after for L.A. school where gun went off in student's backpack

A jittery day after for L.A. school where gun went off in student's backpack
Police on Thursday take a girl into custody at Sal Castro Middle School in Los Angeles after a gun discharged in a classroom, injuring two students. (KTLA)

At first, reports of gunshots at an L.A. middle school seemed likely to follow an all-too-familiar narrative: A young person opens fire on a campus with deadly consequences. Then a new story emerged, still harrowing but less grim — more of a cautionary tale about unintended consequences when children get their hands on guns.

The account that began to fill out Friday was that a 12-year-old girl at Sal Castro Middle School had brought a gun in her backpack and that the gun had gone off, firing a single round that injured two students shortly after the start of the school day.

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"The physical evidence seems to support that it was discharged from within the backpack," LAPD Deputy Chief Robert Arcos said Friday morning.

The bullet first passed through the wrist of a 15-year-old girl, then struck the temple of a 15-year-old boy.

Both were hospitalized at L.A. County-USC Medical Center and listed in fair condition Friday. The boy had more serious injuries and had arrived vomiting blood. Doctors said that he had been lucky and that they were optimistic about a full recovery.

Two other students and one adult sustained minor injuries, but not from gunfire. They were treated and quickly released.

Officers took the 12-year-old girl into custody at the scene and confiscated an unregistered semiautomatic pistol. Prosecutors on Friday charged her with one felony count of being a minor in possession of a firearm and a second felony count of having a weapon on school grounds. The girl is scheduled to be arraigned Monday.

Key details that could have a bearing on how the case is handled and on future public policy have yet to emerge.

Police are still trying to determine how the girl obtained the weapon and what prompted her to take it to the school. While they describe her family as cooperative, they say she has an attorney and will not, at least for now, answer questions.

Accounts from students who claimed to be eyewitnesses were difficult to reconcile. On Thursday, one boy told KTTV Fox 11 that the 12-year-old was playing with the gun and pulled the trigger. But that's not the scenario investigators mapped out after examining the evidence.

Alejandra Garcia, 12, said Friday that she was in the classroom when she heard "a loud bang."

"A girl was screaming, 'Help,' and the boy was bleeding from his nose," she said.

After the gunfire erupted, administrators locked down the school, requiring students to remain all day in the classrooms they were in at the time. Some parents chose to pick up their children early; others waited to reunite at dismissal, which was closely supervised by a phalanx of police and school district employees.

Though L.A. schools are typically safer than their surrounding neighborhoods, violence has spilled over, taking at least six lives on or just outside campuses since 1993.

Two earlier episodes also involved guns in backpacks. In 1993, a student died and another was wounded after being shot by a .357 magnum that another student was holding in his backpack. In 2011, two Gardena High students were injured when a gun inside a backpack discharged.

The latter episode prompted school officials to require daily random checks of students and their belongings. It's a policy that isn't always followed. Some parents have called for stepped-up security, while some activists and students want searches discontinued entirely, saying they do more to undermine student trust than they do to enhance school security.

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Overall, officials seemed reassured enough that Thursday's incident was isolated to resume a normal schedule Friday at the Westlake school, just west of downtown. Students moved from class to class as usual. They ate their lunch. They had breaks.

"They just had recess and kids were playing outside," Pia Escudero, who directs crisis counseling and intervention services for L.A. Unified, said midmorning. "Many eyes are watching children."

Officials were concerned about school staff as well as students. Castro Principal Erick Mitchell announced that substitutes would be available for any teacher who felt unable or unwilling to work Friday. One person who accepted the offer was the teacher in the first-period science classroom where the gun went off.

Counseling for students and families had begun Thursday. On Friday, a team of 30 counselors descended on the school complex, which includes adjacent Belmont High and a parent center that serves both schools.

Some parents and students needed reassurance.

Guadalupe Segura placed her hand on her heart as she watched her daughter Jazmine, 13, walk onto campus Friday morning.

"I'm sad," she said. "I'm bringing her here to the school alive, and I don't know what will happen to her between now and when she comes home."

Sixth-grader Oswaldo Gonzalez, 11, said he wasn't ready to come back.

"I'm kind of afraid for my safety," he said. "My parents told me to try and stay safe."

Maria Serrano said her daughter had nightmares, and Serrano didn't want her to go to school Friday. But the 12-year-old insisted.

Serrano said she'd panicked Thursday when she first heard that a girl had been shot and then could not reach her daughter on her cellphone or get through to the school.

"It was a very dramatic day for me," she said.

At Castro, there was a small jump in absences Friday, but more students had been absent the day before the shooting.

Friday morning was already set aside for the school's periodic coffee with the principal. The district considered canceling, but decided some coffee and a question-and-answer session might do families some good.

The gathering, held in the Belmont High auditorium, was closed to the news media and attracted about 70 parents.

One was Catalina Lopez, the mother of Alejandra Garcia, who described hearing the gun go off.

Neither mother nor daughter was ready for Friday's return to classes as usual. They had come only to retrieve what Alejandra had left behind in Thursday's confusion.

"I don't feel it's safe, so I brought her here to pick up her backpack," Lopez said.

Times staff writer Joy Resmovits contributed to this report.

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