TAFT, Calif. — A 16-year-old was in critical condition Thursday night after a fellow student interrupted a first-period class at Taft Union High School southwest of Bakersfield, confronted him by name and fired a round from a 12-gauge shotgun into his upper body.
The assailant, also 16, tried to shoot a second student and missed before a science teacher was able to talk him down, apparently taking the shotgun as the other students fled from the classroom through a door.
Police officers arrived after the teacher had disarmed the assailant and took the teenager into custody. They seized the shotgun.
The teacher, Ryan Heber, was struck in the head by a pellet but was not seriously injured and refused treatment, authorities said.
“If it weren’t for this teacher and his quick response, we don’t know what would have happened,” Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said.
Police said a school supervisor helped Heber distract the assailant. There were no security guards or police immediately on hand to help them: The school’s armed police officer was not on duty Thursday because he had been delayed by snow, authorities said.
The shooting, in which two other Taft students were injured, occurred weeks after the catastrophic school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Calls from students inside Taft brought their frantic parents pouring into streets surrounding the high school. Police locked down the school for hours and searched it. School officials announced that the school would remain closed Friday.
The wounded youth underwent surgery at Kern Medical Center on Thursday afternoon. Police described his condition as critical but stable. The other injured students included a girl who was close to the assailant as he fired; she was being treated at a local hospital for possible hearing damage. A third student sustained minor injuries and may have tripped over tables, police said.
Youngblood said the unidentified assailant is a student at the school and arrived late. He had planned the attack the night before, Youngblood said, and used a shotgun owned by his brother.
The shooter apparently had some prior dealings with the student who was shot. According to police, he came into class with the shotgun about 9 a.m., spoke to the victim directly, then fired, striking him once.
Authorities said witnesses’ accounts were conflicting but that up to 20 rounds may have been fired. It was unclear when Heber was shot.
Youngblood described Heber as being distraught after the incident. The teacher later sent a text message to his mother to say he was OK, according to his father, David Heber.
The elder Heber said his son is 40, has been teaching for about seven years and was an Eagle Scout. “He likes people, he likes the students and he stands up for them,” said the father, 70.
Ryan Heber, arriving at his home in Taft late in the afternoon with no visible wounds — his wife and one of his two young sons at his side — declined to speak about what happened in his classroom. He said he was fine, but too exhausted to relate his experiences.
Moeloa Savea, 52, who was at her son’s home opposite the school’s science center, said she was picking up trash in the frontyard when she saw a young man walk by with a shotgun at his side. He entered the school through an unlocked gate on Wildcat Road, she said. She heard two shots, then saw a woman run out of school screaming for help. Savea called 911, she said.
Danielle Overton said she got a phone call from her daughter, Corey, 16, who was next to the student who was shot. “She was just crying, telling me that there was a shooting at the school.... There’s blood everywhere.”
Students who were in other classrooms said they heard an announcement on the public address system about the shooting. Several students said it caused confusion because they had been told of an upcoming lockdown drill — the subject of a meeting by organizers on campus that morning, authorities said — and they assumed it signaled a practice exercise. The sound of helicopters soon told them otherwise.
Jacob Jackson, 15, a sophomore, said he and his classmates sat for more than an hour in the library, with the lights off and doors locked. “I was just thinking, ‘I don’t want to die,’ ” Jacob said.
Police searched the building and slowly released the students to their parents. Into the afternoon, students were still leaving the campus with parents, some wrapped in blankets against sleet and cold.
Many parents and students at Taft compared the incident to the Newtown shooting, and so did various public officials who hastened to issue condemnations. In a statement denouncing the gun violence, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said her father had attended the school.
Angela Hayden, whose 16-year-old daughter attends Taft High School, said the assailant allegedly threatened to kill her daughter and other students last year while they were on a school bus during a field trip to Universal Studios.
“He was telling everyone that he had a list of people who messed with him over the years and that he was going to kill them,” Hayden told The Times. She said the youth allegedly said his brother would be the first victim.
She said her daughter complained to a vice principal about the incident and that the teenager was expelled for several days. After the youth returned, Hayden said, she called the principal to find out why he was not permanently barred from campus. The principal declined to discuss the punishment, citing privacy concerns, according to Hayden.
“Everybody knew about this kid,” Hayden said.
A neighbor who knew the suspect told the Associated Press that he was often teased because he was “a short guy” and “small.”
Police declined to comment on those assertions Thursday, saying that they were still investigating.
Times staff writers Nicole Santa Cruz and Robert Lopez contributed to this report.