A 15-year-old boy, toting a .357 magnum in his backpack, shot a classmate to death Thursday and wounded another during an early morning English class at Fairfax High School, according to authorities investigating whether the shooting was an accident.
It was the first time in the history of the nation’s second-largest school system that a student has been killed inside a classroom, although the Los Angeles Unified School District has been plagued by a rash of shootings and campus racial violence in recent years.
The suspect--a student from Audubon Junior High who was attending a special winter break class at Fairfax--was handling the gun inside the knapsack when it fired, witnesses said. A bullet went through the chest of 17-year-old Eliaho (Eli) Kogman, who was sitting one desk away, and pierced the left side of 16-year-old Demetrius Rice, who was walking back to his seat from the teacher’s desk.
Students watched in stunned silence as Rice staggered a few steps, collapsed on the floor and died. Kogman, a senior at the school, was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was in stable condition. He will not need surgery and is expected to be released in a few days, hospital spokeswoman Peggy Frank Shaff said.
“The shot just seemed to come out of nowhere,” said teacher Charles Schwartz, adding that even the suspect seemed surprised. “There were no arguments,” Schwartz said. “There was nothing to indicate that anything was wrong.”
As Schwartz herded his horrified students out of Room 218, he said, the youth with the gun stood bewildered at his desk, murmuring: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
He was handcuffed and arrested by police moments later. The youth, whose name was not released because of his age, told police and school officials that he carried the gun in his book bag to protect himself on the RTD buses he takes to and from school.
He was in custody but had not been charged with a crime.
Los Angeles Police Officer Angela McGill said the gun discharged while in the student’s backpack, “but it cannot be determined whether it went off accidentally or intentionally.”
“According to the preliminary investigation, it appears that the suspect had been carrying the gun for several days to protect himself,” she said. “It wasn’t clear who he was afraid of.”
But several students said the youth had previously bragged about having a weapon.
Drawn by news reports that a gunman had opened fire in a classroom, anxious parents flocked to Fairfax throughout the day. Most withdrew their children from class and many vowed to never send them back.
Alison Cooper rushed to the campus when a friend of her 14-year-old daughter called to say there had been a shootout at the school. “She’s not coming here anymore,” said Cooper, whose daughter attends school in Woodland Hills but was enrolled in a winter break math class at Fairfax. “When I get my baby out of here today, that’s it.”
The shooting has renewed a debate over how best to protect students, given the proliferation of guns on the streets, and has focused attention on the idea of using metal detectors--employed at some New York City schools--to screen out people carrying weapons. However, school officials downplayed the prevalence of campus killings.
“This is tragic and unfortunate, but thank God it is the rarest of rarities,” Deputy Supt. Ruben Zacarias said. “Most (shooting) incidents happen off campus as students are going to and from school.”
However, firearms are discovered frequently on the district’s 650 campuses. Last year, 405 guns were confiscated on school grounds--including 28 firearms that turned up at elementary schools.
“It’s crazy how someone can just come in a classroom and start shooting,” said Fairfax sophomore Asia Ahmonuel, 15. “Everybody’s packing guns (at school). . . . Sometimes they’ll lift up their shirts and you can see it. You can walk around school with a gun for hours and nothing will happen.”
Schools use hand-held metal detectors to screen for weapons at special events, such as football games, but district officials say it would be impossible to check the district’s 640,000 students for guns each day.
“It’s impractical because this is not a place where everybody funnels in through one door,” Fairfax Principal Michael O’Sullivan said. “There are entrances all over the campus . . . and I have yet to see a metal detector stop a kid from going over a chain-link fence.”
Most weapons are discovered when a student reports seeing a classmate with a gun or a student draws a firearm during a fight, O’Sullivan said. “We do the best that we can . . . but short of full body searches of any student entering the campus, I don’t know how you (keep guns off campus).”
About 2,000 students were attending winter session classes at the school Thursday--about half of those from other schools.
The 8 a.m. class had just begun, and Schwartz was returning essay papers when he heard a loud pop and saw Kogman tumble from his seat to his knees. Near the front of the classroom, Rice collapsed.
“The kids were quite good, remarkably calm, really,” Schwartz said. “I suppose they were in shock.”
The teacher called for help from an instructor next door. “Then I asked all of the students to step out in the hallway and clear the room. I wanted to get them away from all that had happened, the blood and all.”
Kogman, he said, was crying out in pain, asking: “Why? Why?”
“He couldn’t imagine what had happened to him,” the teacher said.
While Schwartz attended to the injured youth, another teacher talked with the suspect, who stood quietly at his desk, surveying the scene.
“I heard him say: ‘Oh my God,’ then: ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” said Amber Williams, 15, who was standing next to Rice when he was shot. After the gun fired, the youth rushed to the aid of the wounded Kogman.
Schwartz said the suspect was failing the class--which was a freshman remedial English course, intended for students who had failed or needed extra help--and often refused to do his work in class, disrupted lessons by talking with classmates, and frequently challenged and insulted the teacher.
Schwartz said that the night before the shooting he had contacted the boy’s parents to inform them of his poor performance and disruptive classroom behavior, but the conversation was amicable and the boy seemed to be making a sincere effort to improve.
He does not believe he was the intended target. After the shooting, Schwartz said he approached the youth, who was still holding the gun. “If it was me he wanted to shoot, why didn’t he do it then?”
Students discounted any link between the suspect and the victims, saying there had been no problems among the students, who hardly knew each other.
Rice was a popular student at the school--a tall, good-looking football player with many friends and no known enemies.
“He was the nicest, most soft-spoken kid,” Schwartz said. “You’d never hear a peep from him in class, but he always did good work. His essays were excellent. I gave directions, he listened and he got it right the first time.”
As news of the shooting spread through the campus, students expressed disbelief that Rice would fall victim to a bullet.
“It couldn’t be Demetrius,” said Jeremy Robinson, a senior who was friendly with the slain youth. “Nobody would want to hurt him. He’s real cool. Everybody likes him.”
During the regular school year, Fairfax High draws an ethnically mixed student population of 1,837 from a swath of communities stretching from Mulholland Drive to Pico Boulevard. About 40% of students are Latino, 15% African-American, 12% Asian-American and 29% white, which includes the school’s substantial Russian, Armenian and Israeli immigrant population.
Violence has not been a major problem at the school, though students said the campus has been rocked by sporadic fights--including a gang-related disturbance last Thursday--since the winter break classes began this month.
Since then, tensions have been running high on campus, some students said. “You have people from all these different schools and the gangs just feud,” said Datwan Bates, a junior at Fairfax.
This is the second shooting at the school. Six years ago, a Fairfax graduate who was visiting his former teachers at the school was shot by gang members when they quarreled over the use of a hallway pay phone.
Times staff writers Stephanie Chavez and Consella Lee contributed to this story.
Weapons on Campus
In the 1991-92 school year, 1,403 weapons were confiscated in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Figures are based on reports from campus administrators.
OTHER CHANGE TYPE OF WEAPON ELEM. JR. HIGH SR. HIGH SITES* FROM ’90-91 Guns 33 158 182 32 +86 Gun replicas 0 9 3 0 -16 Knives 39 268 214 6 -21 Knife replicas 0 1 0 0 0 Other weapons 38 201 195 24 +39
* District offices, adult schools, special education facilities and other sites
Source: Los Angeles Unified School District
The Toll of Violence
Recent shooting incidents at Los Angeles County public school s : Sept. 29, 1992: A cheerleader was fatally wounded outside Paramount High School after being caught in gang gunfire. Sept. 16, 1992: Two teen-agers, waiting for friends as school let out, were wounded in a drive-by shooting in front of Rosemead High School. June 17, 1992: A 17-year-old honor student was fatally shot in a McDonald’s restaurant across from Paramount High School after refusing to surrender his portable CD player. May 29, 1992: Three teen-agers were wounded at Venice High School in a drive-by shooting stemming from rivalry between two gangs. April 15, 1992: A 15-year-old Bell High School student was shot in the head by a 15-year-old rival gang member as he walked to school. Oct. 28, 1991: A 16-year-old boy was wounded in a drive-by shooting as he stood near Dorsey High School’s playing field. Oct. 4, 1991: Two students attending an afternoon football game between Crenshaw and Dorsey high schools were slightly injured when the crowd was sprayed with gang gunfire at Jackie Robinson Stadium. Sept. 26, 1991: Two girls were injured when a school bus carrying 28 Nogales High School students was caught in the cross-fire between two Valinda gangs blocks from the school. Sept. 18, 1991: A young man was hit in the back by shots fired from a passing vehicle near Muir Junior High School in South Los Angeles. July 30, 1991: A 14-year-old boy suffered a gunshot wound to the leg while trying to flee from two gang members who came on campus at Compton’s Enterprise Middle School. July 22, 1991: A 16-year-old boy was wounded in a gang-related drive-by shooting as he waited for an RTD bus in front of Westchester High School, near Los Angeles International Airport. May 22, 1991: A 14-year-old gang member was shot to death as he stood in front of Millikan Junior High School in Sherman Oaks after classes had been dismissed. April 23, 1991: An 11-year-old boy was killed in the schoolyard of Ralph J. Bunche Middle School in Compton when gang members fired at a school police officer and hit the boy instead. Jan. 14, 1991: A teen-ager on a bicycle fired five or six shots from a handgun as he rode past a Nelson Elementary School in La Puente, but no one was hurt.
Compiled by Times researcher Tracy Thomas.