TAFT, Calif. — The 16-year-old boy had just wounded a classmate he claimed had bullied him, fired two more rounds at students fleeing their first-period science class, then faced teacher Ryan Heber.
“I don’t want to shoot you,” he told the popular teacher, who was trying to coax the teen into giving up the shotgun he still held.
Recounting the suspect’s words, Sheriff Donny Youngblood of Kern County said the confrontation was enough of a distraction to give 28 students time to escape their classroom Thursday at Taft High School.
The violence came just minutes after administrators had announced new lockdown safety procedures prompted by the Newtown, Conn., school massacre.
“Just 10 minutes before it happened our teachers were giving us protocol because of what happened in Connecticut,” said student Oscar Nuno, who was across campus from the science building when an announcer on the speaker system said the school was under lockdown “and it was not a drill.”
The teen victim, who classmates said played football last year for the Taft Wildcats, was in critical but stable condition Thursday night. He was expected to undergo surgery on Friday.
The suspect surrendered his shotgun to Heber and campus supervisor Kim Lee Fields. His pockets were stuffed with more ammunition, Youngblood said.
“This teacher and this counselor stood there face-to-face not knowing if he was going to shoot them,” Youngblood said. “They probably expected the worst and hoped for the best, but they gave the students a chance to escape.”
Heber’s forehead was grazed by a stray pellet, but Youngblood said the teacher who had graduated from the school two decades ago was unaware he had been hit and did not need medical attention.
“He’s the nicest teacher I know,” Nuno said. “He loves his students and he always wants to help.”
Administrators closed the school Friday as residents of this remote town of 9,400 amid tumbleweeds and oil fields about 120 miles northwest of Los Angeles tried to make sense of what happened.
“We know each other here,” said Dave Noerr, a former mayor. “We drive pickups and work hard and hunt and fish. This is a grassroots town. This is the last place you’d think something like this would happen.”
The 16-year-old’s name is on the lips of everyone in town, but authorities are not releasing it because he is a juvenile. He felt bullied by the victim for more than a year, said Youngblood, who added that the claim was being investigated.
Trish Montes described her neighbor as a short guy who was teased about his stature by many.
Montes said her son had worked at the school and tutored the boy last year.
“All I ever heard about him was good things from my son,” Montes said. “He wasn’t Mr. Popularity, but he was a smart kid. It’s a shame. My kid said he was like a genius.”
On Wednesday night he found a gun that authorities believe belonged to his older brother and went to bed plotting revenge against two students, Youngblood said.
“He planned the event,” Youngblood said. “Certainly he believed that the two people he targeted had bullied him, in his mind. Whether that occurred or not, we don’t know yet.”
The suspect arrived after 9 a.m. Thursday, and video surveillance cameras captured him looking nervous as he entered through a side door, Youngblood said. He made his way to the second floor of the science building, to Heber’s class with 28 students.
The suspect walked in a door close to the front of the classroom and shot his classmate. When the shots were fired, Heber tried to get the more than two dozen students out a back door and engaged the shooter in conversation to distract him, Youngblood said.
“The heroics of these two people goes without saying. ... They could have just as easily ... tried to get out of the classroom and left students, and they didn’t,” the sheriff said. “They knew not to let him leave the classroom with that shotgun.”