Frightened parents rushed to the scene of a Los Angeles middle school Thursday morning, crowding outside the gates, desperate to hear if their children were safe. Word had spread fast that a gun had gone off in a classroom and that students had been shot.
News helicopter footage showed a handcuffed girl in jeans and a sweatshirt being led away by police officers, one of them carrying her backpack.
Such scenes of anguish are not common in L.A., where until Thursday, seven years had passed without a student being shot inside a district school building.
But they have become a regular occurrence in the U.S. Thursday’s incident was the 14th school shooting in the country in 2018, according to an analysis by Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group.
And even before the details of what had happened were clear, questions were being raised about how the nation’s second-largest school system goes about protecting its students.
The incident at Sal Castro Middle School — less than a mile from the headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District — left two 15-year-old students with gunshot wounds. Authorities did not identify the victims or the 12-year-old taken into custody.
Children described huddling in darkened classrooms as police secured the building. Authorities raced to notify the families of the wounded.
“What is it that would make a child want to come to school with a gun?” said acting L.A. Unified Supt. Vivian Ekchian. “We have to address these issues as a community.”
The male victim, who was shot in the head, was in stable condition Thursday afternoon. The other victim, a girl, had been shot in the wrist and was in fair condition. Both were taken to the L.A. County-USC Medical Center, where doctors said they should make a full recovery.
“This child was extremely lucky,” trauma surgeon Aaron Strumwasser said of the boy, who had arrived at the hospital vomiting blood.
Three other people suffered minor injuries, said Capt. Erik Scott of the Los Angeles Fire Department. They were a 30-year-old woman, an 11-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl.
Inside the middle school, police ushered some students into the auditorium, where they waited to be interviewed about what they had seen. Some were handcuffed and searched for weapons before ultimately being released.
"We will attend to the needs of these students, the witnesses, very carefully, with the understanding that this is very traumatic," said Los Angeles School Police Chief Steve Zipperman.
Shortly after students were allowed to leave, a 12-year-old boy told a reporter that he had been in the classroom where the gun went off and had seen students “playing” with it beforehand. Benjamin, whose aunt asked that he be identified by only his first name, said he was in the back of the class when he heard a “loud pop” toward the front.
“Someone decided to bring a gun, I guess someone was accidentally playing around with it,” he said. It "was an accident. They thought it was a fake gun.”
Josh Rubenstein, an LAPD spokesman, said Thursday evening that police do not believe that what occurred was intentional.
The gunshot wounds, and the fact that a gun had made its way into a middle school, quickly revived an old debate within L.A. Unified over the best way to keep students safe. For years, district administrators and advocacy groups have sparred over how to strike a balance between security measures and the desire to make students feel welcome rather than under constant suspicion.
Under its current policy, the district requires all middle and high school campuses to conduct daily random searches. These are supposed to be done using the kind of hand-held metal detectors, or wands, typically seen at large sporting events and concerts. This regulation also applies to charter schools located in district buildings, a mandate that some charter leaders have objected to as unnecessary.
Sabrina Colon, 12, said she was in her seventh-grade math class at Sal Castro Middle School on Thursday, when she heard a loud bang from the class next door. She said that staff sometimes check backpacks, use wands, and pat students down.
“They do it every once in a while,” she said. “They need to do it more often.”
L.A. Unified has used random searches since 1993, when two high school students were shot and killed in district schools. That January, a 16-year-old boy was killed at Fairfax High School by a classmate who brought a gun to school in his backpack. A month later, a student was shot to death at Reseda High School.
In 2011, the school board decided on daily searches with wands after two students were injured in an accidental shooting at Gardena High School.
Some critics of the policy argue that the searches are anything but random and that they unfairly paint black and Latino students as would-be criminals. Others say that the process simply is ineffective.
Last year, the district released an internal audit that examined searches at 20 schools. It found that some schools weren’t conducting them daily and about a quarter of those surveyed didn’t have enough metal detectors. Records kept by the school district’s police department show that between 2013 and 2017, L.A. Unified schools confiscated an average of 21 firearms a year from students. Only one of those guns was found by a metal detector.
School board member George McKenna said the shooting Thursday highlighted the need to continue the random searches.
“It’s a tragedy, but it also reflects the ease with which students can access guns and the ease with which they can get them on campus despite our efforts to prevent it,” he said. McKenna said that he used to oppose the searches, preferring “heartware over hardware,” but that his views have changed.
“You’re not going to get everyone with wanding, but you can’t measure the ones you prevented,” he said.
Board member Nick Melvoin, who has been sympathetic to the civil rights advocates who have criticized random searches, said he would need to know more about the shooting before deciding whether it should influence district practices.
“This is not just an L.A. Unified problem but an American problem,” he said. “This has become an epidemic in this country.”