Nearly two weeks after a shooting at Taft Union High School that left a 16-year-old student critically injured, community members at an information meeting at the school Tuesday demanded to know why administrators allowed the alleged shooter back on campus after he had allegedly threatened classmates.
The meeting included a panel of administrators, law enforcement, a certified trauma specialist and two school board members who made brief presentations and then opened the floor to questions.
Emotions ran high when some asserted that obvious signs that the alleged shooter was unsafe were ignored. After the Jan. 10 shooting, students and parents told police and reporters that suspect Bryan Oliver, 16, had been suspended briefly last year because he'd drawn up a hit list of students.
"He should never have been allowed back in this school," shouted Jessenia Parsons, whose son attends Taft. "You get Fs and you're taken to (continuation high school) Buena Vista, but you can write up a hit list of 30 kids and you're suspended for two days?"
Interim Superintendent William McDermott told the crowd of nearly 200 people that laws protecting student privacy and the pending criminal case against Oliver prohibited him from discussing disciplinary action against individual students, but he took pains to assure parents that their children were safe.
"It's with a tremendous amount of sadness that we meet here tonight, but also at the same time, we hope, hope that we can come together as a community," he said. "I think we will emerge stronger ... and I hope that we emerge a lot kinder."
McDermott said his door is always open if a parent or student has any concerns, and noted that two school board members were present and planning to take feedback from the meeting to the rest of the board. He added that a review of protocols and security in the wake of the shooting continues, and outlined a list of new safety precautions at the school. They included closing off access to campus entrances during school hours so that visitors are forced to sign in at the principal's office.
The response didn't appease many parents, some of whom interrupted speakers and spoke over each other in their fury.
While most people in the audience were furious with Oliver, Jackie Youngborg, whose late husband taught at Taft for decades, urged compassion. She wanted to know about efforts to stop bullying in light of Oliver's assertion that the shooting was a reaction to having been bullied for more than a year.
"I'm concerned about not only students who bully, but also those who have been a victim," she said. "I'm surprised this young child -- and he is a child -- didn't commit suicide, turn the gun on himself."
Youngborg added that she hoped the district attorney's office would reverse its decision to try Oliver as an adult.
Oliver is charged with two counts of attempted murder and two counts of assault with a firearm in the wounding of one student and the targeting of another, and one count of assault with a firearm in the wounding of a teacher.
One area where there was universal agreement was praise for first responders who rushed to the school after the shooting. Both school officials and parents applauded warmly when speaker after speaker thanked law enforcement for their service.
Even critics of the administration reassured school police officer Doug Hallmark when he tried to accept blame for the lack of security the day of the shooting because he lives in the mountains and the Grapevine was closed that morning due to snow. "I was the only gun at the school," he said, his voice shaking.
"We love you!" one parent shouted.
A veteran who was in the audience volunteered to patrol the campus in Hallmark's absence if there was ever a similar problem.
The chaotic scene after Oliver was taken into custody also drew some questions. One mother said she had to wait six hours before she could pick up her daughter, and was given conflicting information about where to go to retrieve her. Another complained that she wasn't contacted at all and had to find out about the incident through friends and the media.
Police chief Ed Whiting said the Taft Police Department is small and doesn't have a lot of phone lines, and the city's lone cell tower was overwhelmed by the volume of mobile phone calls that day. He said all the law enforcement officers who responded to the emergency were reviewing their responses to see how they could do better next time, "but obviously we hope there isn't a next time."