Third-period health class was just beginning Tuesday at Gardena High School when a 17-year-old boy walked in and set his backpack down on a desk. In the chaos that followed, accounts differed about precisely what happened. But this much was clear: A gun had discharged, apparently by accident; two students were wounded, one critically; and the campus of 3,100 was sent into a tense, frightening lockdown.
"Wow, someone just got shot in the classroom," student Dan Im wrote from the scene in a profanity-laced, Korean-language Twitter feed. "I'm freaked out."
Developing: School shooting updates
After about an hour, police found and arrested the boy suspected of having brought the gun into the class. Meanwhile, the two wounded students, both 15, had been rushed to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where a girl who had been shot in the head underwent lengthy surgery. She was in critical condition with a skull fracture and brain trauma. A boy who had been shot in the neck was listed as stable, his wound not considered life-threatening.
Police said the two might have been struck by a single bullet.
Friends of the suspect said he was not known as a violent boy, but had brought the gun to school for his own protection.
"I think he was just scared," classmate Para Ross said, "Scared of what was going to happen when he left school and took the bus home. There are a lot of gangs around here. People are dying."
The boy was interviewed by police detectives Tuesday afternoon. Law enforcement sources told The Times one of the aspects of the investigation was whether the teen, a special education student, had been bullied on his way to and from school.
The shooting filled parents and students with dread and anger, many questioning how the student was allowed to bring a loaded gun onto campus.
Like other Los Angeles Unified School District high schools, Gardena periodically conducts random screening of students with a metal detector. John Deasy, the incoming superintendent of L.A. Unified, said the district would review whether that policy needs to be strengthened. He said extra security would be at the campus Wednesday.
The shooting occurred just after 10:30 a.m. on the large, one-story campus at 182nd Street and Normandie Avenue. According to police and Los Angeles Unified School District officials, the 17-year-old came into the classroom, set his backpack on a desk or table, and a gun inside it discharged.
However, a student who was in the class, Miguel Lopez, 17, said the boy was reaching into the pack when the gun went off. In another version, the gun discharged when the boy leaned on the backpack.
Im, a senior who was sitting in the back corner of the classroom, said the shooting sounded like a bag of chips had been popped, but louder. He recalled hearing a student exclaim, "Something popped in my backpack."
Then came a shriek from the teacher and a frantic cry for someone to call 911. A girl on the other side of the classroom clutched her bleeding neck, then collapsed, Im said. A boy asked, "Why does my neck hurt?" and then realized he was bleeding near his shoulder.
By all accounts, the shooting was accidental. By some accounts, the boy with the gun apologized to classmates before bolting from the class, leaving behind a scene of blood and chaos, with students crying and frantically phoning their parents and 911.
Outside the class, the boy apparently dropped the 9-mm Beretta handgun, then walked into a room where students were learning piano. About an hour later, in a scene captured from above by a helicopter-mounted news camera, heavily armed police ordered students in that classroom to file out with their hands up. When a boy who matched the description of the suspect emerged, police immediately threw him to the ground and handcuffed him.
Some students who knew the youth described him as someone who was unlikely to have acted intentionally.
"He was a sweetheart, always smiling and hugging people," said Ross, an 11th-grader.
"He never would have done this on purpose," said 10th-grader Brian Rogers, who said he had known the suspect for about a year.
But Hoda Makkar, a campus aide who has worked at the school for a year and a half, said she had spoken to him frequently about his temper.
"Some kids come to school angry and he was one of those who came to school angry. He walked around a lot with his fists up all the time," Makkar said. She added that his parents were frequently at the school to speak to counselors.
"I thought he was doing better," Makkar said, shaking her head. "That's why I was shocked. Bringing a gun to school? That is so dumb."
The shooting turned the Gardena campus into a barricaded crime scene, with students held in locked-down classrooms, police SWAT teams roaming the halls and helicopters hovering above. As word got out, parents descended on the school, clustering on the street outside in anxious knots.
Patricia Gutierrez rushed from her home in Inglewood after she got a call from her brother. Her nephew is a sophomore at Gardena High.
"I don't even remember getting here — I just flew out the door," she said. "I was thinking of the congresswoman in Arizona, and I thought, 'This is crazy. What is going on? Why?' "
Gutierrez said her nephew had called his father and said he was fine.
Some parents expressed anger and disappointment with the school.
Candace Green, who graduated from Gardena in 1989, has a 15-year-old daughter on campus. Green said that after moving from Bellflower this school year, her daughter was coming home from Gardena High with stories of fights on campus. Her daughter didn't want to go to homecoming after hearing about fights rumored to occur at the event.
"She loves the teachers, but she hates the students," Green said. "It's a mentality. In Bellflower, the focus was on learning. Here, the dress codes are lax, the students aren't interested in learning. This proves it."
Still, Brooke Lundy, a theater teacher at Gardena High, said the shooting did not reflect the character of the school.
"We're so much better than this," she said.
Lundy said she watched as the suspect was taken into custody.
"He didn't look cocky or anything," she said. "He looked like he knew what he did was wrong."