A 16-year-old student pulled a handgun from his backpack at a high school in Santa Clarita, California, on Thursday morning and shot five students, killing two, before shooting himself in the head, authorities said.
The suspect has not yet been identified, but police said he was a student at the school, Saugus High School, and that Thursday was his birthday. Authorities said he was in grave condition at a nearby hospital.
The students who died were a 16-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy, authorities said. The other victims were identified as a 14-year-old girl, a 15-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy, all of whom were injured by gunfire.
The gunman fired a .45-caliber semi-automatic pistol in the quad of the school just after 7:30 a.m. and it was caught on video, said Capt. Kent Wegener of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He added that there were no more bullets in the gun when it was recovered.
Medical staff transferred the suspect to the hospital before the police had identified him, Wegener said.
“Among those who were transported turned out to be the suspect,” said Alex Villanueva, the county sheriff.
Wegener said the gunman’s girlfriend and mother were with detectives at a hospital. Officers also searched the suspect’s home, he said, which is just over a mile away from the school.
Images from the scene showed paramedics transporting the wounded on stretchers, outdoor tables littered with the backpacks of students who had fled, and tear-filled reunions between parents and students.
One student, Sharon Orelana Cordova, told KNBC-TV that she hid under a table in a nurse’s office until officers came to get her. “When I got out I saw this person lying on the ground,” she said, “with blood all over.”
A student says he ‘grew up knowing this is a thing that happens.’
At the high school, tucked in a suburban Southern California neighborhood of ranch homes, below brown, rolling hills, a swarm of police, sheriff’s and highway patrol SUVs surrounded Saugus High School.
Clusters of officers holding long guns stood around a campus where murals read “Californian Distinguished School.”
Tristan Aguirre, a 17-year-old senior, said he was in English class when he heard “some shots,” a situation the students had prepared for in shooting drills.
“It’s the world now,” he said. “The world now is weird.”
Samuel Arreaza, 15, a sophomore, said he was about to head into school from across the street when he saw the police cars and his phone started “exploding.” A friend was sheltered in the library. He turned around and stayed in the house. His parents said it was the only time they wouldn’t yell at him for being late.
Samuel said he grew up in Santa Clarita and it was a peaceful, “laid-back” community. The students at Saugus had undergone active shooter drills, and he “grew up knowing this is a thing that happens.”
Now those conversations will be more real.
Lucy Gulley, 47, lives just up the street from the school and was taking her younger son, who is 11, to a junior high nearby, when she saw children running.
At first, she told her son they were just goofing around. But then she saw the looks of panic on their faces.
She and her husband invited several students into their home to call their parents.
“It’s very emotional,” she said. “You just automatically get into the state of mind where you put your child in that situation.”
A father of two children at the school described seeing students ‘huddled together in tears.’
Jeremy Thompson’s two sons attend Saugus High School, and he said he first learned about the shooting when his younger son, a sophomore, called him early Thursday morning.
Thompson said his older son, a senior, told him by text that he and his classmates had barricaded themselves in a classroom — likely their first-period class — and covered up the windows. Later, he and many other students were moved to a gymnasium by school staff, Thompson said.
Cellphone reception was spotty, and Thompson said he was only getting updates from his sons intermittently — terse texts that seemed to understate the gravity of the moment.
“You would expect them to be more affected, but it’s just the reality that has plagued kids for so many years at this point,” he said.
The sophomore told his father that there had been shots fired at school and that he was walking away from the building toward his mother’s house nearby.
“Kids today, they never call, so you get this call, and you automatically wonder what it’s going to be,” Thompson said in an interview from a parent reunification center nearby. He had been at the school the night before to see one of his sons performing in a theater production of “Shakespeare in Love,” where everyone had been celebrating a successful show.
“And then I come here this morning and see a bunch of them huddled together in tears,” he said of their peers.
Thompson, a former Democratic staffer, said that as the names of shooting sites around the country stack up — Parkland, Sandy Hook, Las Vegas — he had just wished Santa Clarita would not be added to the list.
“You just hope against hope that it’s not going to hit your school or your kids,” he said.
American school students are all too familiar with the threat of shootings.
Lockdown drills to prepare for shootings or other disasters have become ubiquitous in American schools; 95% of schools held them in 2015-2016, according to the federal government.
Mental health experts have begun to raise concerns about the potential of such drills, some of which are eerily realistic, to scare or even traumatize children.
At Glencoe High School in Alabama this week, the sound of gunshots rang out, and students jumped out windows in a mock escape. Student actors were strapped to stretchers and loaded into waiting ambulances.
In Jefferson County, Colorado — home to Columbine High School — teachers were recently given buckets and kitty litter, which could be used as toilets in the case of an extended lockdown.
Teachers in West Virginia have reported that so-called “code red” drills are sometimes held without their or their students’ prior knowledge — so that they are never sure whether the terrifying threat is real.
School safety is a $2.7 billion industry, with districts purchasing increasingly sophisticated technology. Some schools require visitors to scan their driver’s license or thumbprint, or submit to a facial scan.
But despite the crushing tragedy of what seems like an endless string of school shootings, schools remain among the safest places for American children, who are less likely to die there than at home or in their neighborhoods. School safety experts say the most important emergencies for schools to prepare for are those that are more regular occurrences: traffic accidents, weather disasters, thefts, assaults and child abductions linked to custody battles.
Some of the measures that could prevent those events, such as locking external and internal doors and signing in guests, can also help prevent or mitigate school shootings.
Democratic presidential candidates put a spotlight on gun violence.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California sounded exasperated in a telephone interview on CNN, telling anchor Anderson Cooper several times that the situation was: “just tragic.”
“Our kids are living in fear,” she said. “This is yet again, another reason why they are so afraid, that literally, they will die.”
Other candidates also weighed in. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who has called for stiff regulations, including a gun licensing program, reiterated his desire to “bring a fight to the NRA.” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said she was “heartsick for the victims.” And Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont highlighted the need for what he called “common sense” gun safety legislation.
“We cannot accept this as normal,” former housing secretary Julián Castro said. “We must act on behalf of our children.”
Added entrepreneur Andrew Yang: “As the parent of two school-age boys this is our worst nightmare come to life.”
Gabrielle Giffords and Katie Hill call for stricter gun laws.
Gabrielle Giffords, the former congresswoman from Arizona who was shot in the head by a gunman in 2011 and has since become an advocate for stricter gun-control laws, called on President Donald Trump and Republican lawmakers to take action after what she said was the 366th mass shooting so far in 2019.
“Americans have had enough of living in fear that today gun violence will change their lives,” Giffords said in a statement, adding that national leaders “can’t ignore the nightmare this public safety threat creates any longer.”
Giffords called on the Senate to pass a background checks bill approved by the House in February. The bill, which would require background checks for all gun purchasers, including those at gun shows and on the internet, was the first significant gun control bill to clear the chamber in a quarter of a century.
The legislation was propelled by last year’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which prompted a wave of student-led activism that pressed Democrats to unite around gun control.
“Every politician paid to defend the status quo by the gun lobby needs to answer whether they are comfortable with live shooter drills becoming routine, students running terrified from their classrooms, and entire communities being locked down,” Giffords said, adding, “How many more deaths will happen before they sign that lifesaving legislation into law?”
Katie Hill, who graduated from Saugus High School in 2004 and represented the area in Congress before resigning earlier this month, said Santa Clarita has higher number of gun owners than average across the country. During her tenure, she told MSNBC, the House of Representatives passed four pieces of gun control legislation that have yet to be taken up by the Senate.
“This is something that my colleagues and I talked about all the time,” she said from her backyard, as helicopters searching for the shooter circled overhead. “When you go back to your communities, people want to know what you’re going to do, and we’re really stuck.”
Several of her campaign interns and volunteers go to the school, she said on Twitter: “Praying for all.”