TAFT — Authorities are investigating widespread reports that a boy who opened fire in a Taft Union High School classroom Thursday specifically targeted students on a hit list.
The alleged list was compiled last year, members of the school community told reporters. The allegations surfaced quickly Thursday morning following the boy's use of a shotgun to critically injure a classmate and graze his teacher before he put down the weapon.
His science teacher, Ryan Heber, and campus supervisor Kim Fields were immediately hailed as heroes for talking the suspect into laying down his shotgun.
The teacher suffered a minor wound to the head when he was grazed by a pellet. Fields was not hurt.
The suspected shooter, a 16-year-old boy who law enforcement has not named, is in custody.
The victim, who authorities also declined to identify, was in critical but stable condition Thursday afternoon after being airlifted to Kern Medical Center and undergoing surgery.
The boy was in an induced coma, standard procedure to keep him stable and safe, doctors said.
In addition to the student who was rushed to KMC, a female student may have suffered hearing damage due to the close range of a shot, and another girl injured her ankle as she fell over a desk trying to get away, authorities said.
The acting superintendent of the Taft Union High School District said there would be no school Friday, but classes would resume Monday.
A BOY WITH A MISSION
The incident unfolded shortly after 9 a.m. in a classroom on the second floor of the school’s physical sciences building.
“He had intended targets. There's no question,” Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said of the suspect.
The student in critical condition was sought specifically, and the suspect named a second intended target who was not hit, Youngblood said. Officials believe two to four rounds were fired.
Youngblood said there had been a dialogue in the past between the suspect and the student who was shot.
The boy told authorities he had been bullied for more than a year.
“Certainly the two people that he targeted had bullied him, in his mind,” Youngblood said.
The department is investigating reports that the boy had planned the shooting in advance.
“He knew what he was going to do today,” Youngblood said Thursday evening.
The alleged shooter was late to his first period class when he arrived with a 12-gauge shotgun after entering the building through a side entrance, Youngblood said.
A neighbor in the area reported seeing a boy walking to school with a gun and called 911. The Taft Police Department had two units on scene within 60 seconds of the call, said Police Chief Ed Whiting.
The first victim was shot after he stood up. Frightened classmates ran to the back of the room, and others ran into a storage closet.
The suspect allegedly shot at them as they fled, but missed.
Campus supervisor Fields got to the classroom before police. He rushed there when he heard shots fired.
The suspect pointed the gun in several directions while the teacher and campus supervisor talked to him. At one point, the boy told the teacher he didn’t want to shoot him, Youngblood said.
Ultimately, Fields and Heber talked the boy into putting the gun down, and the suspect was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder.
“We really want to commend a teacher and campus supervisor who brought this to a fast resolution,” Whiting said.
The boy had other rounds in his pockets, so the incident could potentially have been much worse, authorities said.
Youngblood said it appears the shotgun belonged to the boy’s brother.
Neither Heber nor Fields could be reached for comment Thursday. The school district instructed staff and faculty not to speak with the media.
The teacher’s father, David Heber, said he had heard rumors of a shooting at the school Thursday morning but wasn't initially worried.
"His students like him a whole bunch," said the father, 70. "He's not the kind of teacher a student would try to hurt. He's definitely someone who could talk a kid down in an emergency."
After the incident, Ryan Heber sent a mobile phone text message to his mother, who is out of town this week, letting her know there had been a shooting at school but that he was OK.
"It's always smart to text your mother if there's a crisis," the elder Heber said. “I’m just glad he’s safe.”
Ryan Heber's wife is also an employee at Taft Union High School. Emmy Lou Heber works in the business office, David Heber said.
"I think she's probably more traumatized by all this than my son," he said. "He's very strong and doesn't get too emotional."
Meghan King, 20, a former student of Heber’s who was also an aide in his classes, said Heber “always knew how to make you feel better” and that she wasn’t surprised that he would take action in an emergency.
VICTIM EXPECTED TO SURVIVE
A family friend said the victim of the shooting is a junior at Taft.
The boy suffered chest and abdominal wounds but is expected to pull through, said Dr. Ruby Skinner, head of trauma at KMC.
Skinner said the student arrived at the county hospital with shotgun injuries to the right side of his chest.
"He came in very unstable," Skinner said, "and was taken immediately to the operating room with serious injuries to his chest and intra-abdominal area."
The boy’s wounds were repaired, but his injuries included trauma to his lungs and liver, so further surgery will be necessary, she said.
"He's on life support and is stable but still critical," Skinner said.
He is expected to get through this, she added.
"He's a very lucky kid. These are very serious injuries, but he has youth on his side."
Youngblood said there is usually an armed Taft Police Department officer on campus, but he was not there Thursday because he had been snowed in.
Ironically, the school had just held a staff meeting at 7 a.m. to talk about how to deal with active shooters. As a result, many teachers initially thought the lockdown was a drill.
A school safety plan posted on the district’s website says the school uses a digital video surveillance system that includes 43 security cameras in common areas in an effort to monitor campus activity. A campus security guard monitors the school grounds, and the high school district contracts with the Kern County Sheriff’s Department to employ a full-time school resource officer.
Schools all over the country have been reviewing their safety plans after last month’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Before he was killed, the gunman there killed 20 children and six adults at the school and his mother off campus. The tragedy renewed a national debate about gun control.
The Taft shooting occurred on the same day as Vice President Joe Biden’s talks with gun ownership groups and on the same day the suspect in last summer’s movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. was bound over for trial.
CHAOS IN THE CLASSROOM
Taft junior Katie Wolfe, 16, said she was sitting two desks away from the victim in earth science class when he was shot.
“The kid came in and he shot and he hit (the student) in the chest,” Wolfe said.
She instinctively dropped to the ground and the shooter fired again.
“(The boy) was bleeding and Kim (Fields) came and just talked him into setting the gun down,” Wolfe said.
After firing the gun, the only thing the shooter said “was that he just wants Jacob,” Wolfe said. She said she wasn’t sure who he was referring to.
“It’s someone that bullied him I guess,” Wolfe said. “(Heber) was trying to talk him into setting the gun down. He was all like, ‘We’ve been good to you.’”
Wolfe said Fields also told the shooter to put the gun down, and that everything would be OK.
“I feel that Kim did really really good and Mr. Heber, he was scared. He did the best he could for being scared,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe said the students were told to get to another classroom and she and the other students scattered. Wolfe ended up in the mechanic shop and hid there with other teenagers.
Mother Cindi Powell of Taft said her daughter Jacqueline Summers, 16, a junior, was in the classroom where the shooting happened. Powell said her daughter called her at 9:12 a.m.
“When I finally got ahold of her she just was screaming hysterically that somebody was shot in her classroom, and it was kind of garbled because she was so upset,” the mother said.
Law enforcement officers were interviewing students who were in the classroom, the girl told her mother.
Eighteen-year-old senior Michael Larsen said he was in the school’s TV production room when the lockdown announcement came. He and other students waited in a windowless room with their teacher.
Larsen found out from text messages that the victim, a friend of his, had been shot.
“I’m actually kind of shaken up right now. You know I was texting all my family and stuff, and I just didn’t think I would make it out of there,” Larsen said as his face fell and he began to cry.
Larsen described his friend as a “really cool guy” with whom he played football.
“He’s a really funny guy once you get to know him. Like some people would take him as this big guy that’s scary and stuff, but he’s like a really big teddy bear,” he said.
Friends of the shooter, including Wolfe, said it was not unusual for him to talk about killing people.
“He does say stuff like that a lot. I’ve never heard him say a name that he was gonna shoot anybody in specific,” Wolfe said. “I thought he was just kidding ’cause he’d say it all the time, and he never did anything since freshman year.”
Rebecca Jackson, a 17-year-old senior, was in a physics class one floor above the classroom where the shooting took place.
“I heard a popping noise and then everything went into lockdown. I knew, like immediately, that it was (the suspect),” she said.
The suspect had never been violent before but was anti-social and afraid people would ridicule him, Jackson said. She said she was one of the only people who would talk to him because he would say a lot of “really weird, random crap.”
“He had told me yesterday, some more of that crap. He was joking that he was like gonna kill (the victim) and I thought that it was just a joke because he usually jokes around like that, like telling people that he's gonna kill them, or skin them alive or something, or eat their puppies,” Jackson said. “So I really didn't take that seriously, and he was going around all day telling people that, you know, he was, he might not be there tomorrow and not to worry about it, he might not be around for a little while. No one actually thought that he would do this.”
Jackson said she thought the suspect was scared but “really not that bad of a guy.
“He had a lot of things going for him and a lot of things against him. It really came down to his choice.”
ALL HANDS ON DECK
While the Taft Police Department has jurisdiction over the high school shooting, law enforcement from the sheriff’s department, FBI and California Highway Patrol swarmed the school at 1 Wildcat Way to assist in evacuations and room-to-room searches of the campus.
Hundreds of parents, children and family clogged nearby streets to get to the school and pick up their children, who were released in blocks in the alphabetical order of their last names.
Taft City Councilman Dave Noerr rushed to the scene after hearing initial reports of the shooting. Standing outside the science building at about 10:35 a.m., he said he’d seen personnel from the Sheriff’s Department, SWAT teams, the FBI and the Taft Police Department, plus ambulances and fire trucks.
“All the resources one can possibly imagine to respond to a horrible tragedy are here,” he said.
Harry Starkey is general manager of West Kern Water District, which is next door to the school.
He said he was in a meeting with officials from the city and Taft College at about 9 a.m. when the officials abruptly left the meeting, saying there had been a shooting at the school.
Shortly afterward, Starkey said he saw two helicopters land at the school’s football field.
The West Kern Water District was placed on lockdown as a precaution. The K-8 Taft City School District and Taft College went on lockdown, as well.
The American Red Cross- Kern Chapter sent a team to the high school that included mental health and nurse professionals, as well as trained volunteer disaster responders.
Taft is “a small community. We’re one big family,” Noerr said. “We’re doing everything we can for each other.”
Californian staff writers Jason Kotowski, Steven Mayer, Rachel Cook and Antonie Boessenkool, and editors Christine L. Peterson and Christine Bedell contributed to this report.