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School shooting that injured 4 students believed to be unintentional, police say

By Sonali Kohli, Brittny Mejia, Howard Blume and Ruben Vives • Feb 2, 2018 at 1:59 PM

LOS ANGELES — A 12-year-old girl was booked on suspicion of negligent discharge of a firearm Thursday after a shooting at Sal Castro Middle School left four students injured, authorities said.

Los Angeles police do not believe that the shooting was intentional, spokesman Josh Rubenstein said Thursday evening.

The gunfire erupted in a classroom at the school in the Westlake neighborhood shortly after the opening bell and caused numerous students to run from the area, Los Angeles Police Officer Drake Madison said.

A semiautomatic handgun was recovered from the scene.

At least one student who was in the classroom told a reporter he thought the gunfire was unintentional.

“Someone decided to bring a gun, I guess someone was accidentally playing around with it,” said Benjamin, a 12-year-old seventh-grader, whose guardian asked that his last name not be used. “They thought it was a fake gun.”

When authorities responded around 8:55 a.m., they found a 15-year-old boy with a gunshot wound to the head, a 15-year-old girl shot in the wrist and three others with minor injuries.

The boy, who was shot in the temple, was in stable condition Thursday afternoon, and was expected to fully recover, said Dr. Carl Chudnofsky of L.A. County-USC Medical Center. The girl, who was shot in the left wrist, was in fair condition.

Three others — a 30-year-old woman, an 11-year-old boy and a 12-year-old girl — also suffered minor injuries, including two from gunshots, health officials said.

At a news conference outside the hospital Thursday, Dr. Aaron Strumwasser said the 15-year-old boy was extremely lucky because the bullet wound failed to cause serious damage. “I think he will do fine,” Strumwasser said.

The suspected shooter was taken into custody and a firearm was recovered, officials said. Helicopter news footage showed two officers leading a handcuffed girl with long hair, jeans and a sweatshirt to a waiting squad car.

Sabrina Colon, 12, was in her seventh-grade math class when she heard a muffled bang from the class next door.

“I stayed quiet and then we started seeing students run,” she said.

The kids said a student had been shot. Sabrina’s teacher ran out to help.

“They were saying, ‘Help, my friend’s vein popped, there’s blood all over,’” said Sean Contreras, another student in Sabrina’s classroom.

Around the same time, Ruth Saenz’s cellphone buzzed with a series of strange texts from her daughter.

“Mom I’m scared,” the first one said. “This girls vane popes.”

Saenz asked her daughter if someone was calling 911.

She then called the school, but no one answered. When she saw the news on TV, she left work to pick up her daughter.

Alexandria Colon, Sabrina’s 13-year-old sister, said the school doesn’t have major problems with bullying or gangs, like Belmont High School across the street.

“I don’t think it had to do with bullying,” Sabrina said.

Sabrina said sometimes authorities will check backpacks or conduct pat-downs.

“They do it every once in a while,” she said. “They need to do it more often.”

In a morning news conference, Los Angeles School Police Chief Steve Zipperman said he did not know how a young person got access to a gun and brought it to campus, but warned gun owners to keep their weapons secure and away from children.

“Los Angeles has a law about the safe storage of weapons,” L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer added. “Every responsible gun owner needs to take heed.”

Tyresha McNair got to the school Thursday morning with her young niece. She had seen news of the shooting on TV and came to get her daughter, who is a student at the middle school.

“I saw it on the news and I came here to get my baby,” she said.

At the front gate of the school, McNair said she was directed to the back, which was blocked off. She said she had been texting her daughter, but hadn’t heard back.

“Any other time my baby would respond and she’s not responding,” McNair said. “I just want my daughter. I want my daughter.”

It was sometime after 9 a.m. when Rosario Hernandez, 41, got a phone call from her 16-year-son, Jimmy Romero, telling her a shooting had occurred at his brother’s school. Jimmy attends Belmont High School, which is across the street.

Hernandez left work and sped to the school campus.

She texted her 14-year-old son, Johnny Romero, whose number was listed under “Johnny baby,” and asked him if was OK.

When he finally responded, he told her they were still on lockdown and said the shooting had happened inside a seventh-grade classroom.

“She shot a girl and a boy,” he wrote.

“OMG,” Hernandez responded. “But why mijo.”

“I don’t know. Mom go home, I will tell you when we are not in lockdown.”

Nearby, Laura Gonzalez waited to get Information from police and school district officials.

“I’m worried and I want her to be released already. We want to take our children home,” Gonzalez said. “I didn’t think something like this would happen here.”

Castro Middle School is located in a building across the street from the main Belmont High School campus. The middle school building used to be part of Belmont High when the high school had a higher enrollment.

Zipperman said on KNX-AM that the school takes part in the district’s safety plan, which includes random searches of students for weapons and other contraband.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is the only district its size that requires every middle- and high-school campus to conduct daily random searches for weapons using metal-detecting wands.

Victims are loaded into ambulances, and LAPD officers take a girl into custody on the campus of Salvador Castro Middle School in Los Angeles.

However, an internal district audit of 20 schools released in April found inconsistencies in how random searches were conducted. Some schools failed to do the searches daily, the audit found. One-fourth lacked enough metal-detecting wands to search properly.

The district started random searches in 1993 after a 16-year-old was shot and killed at Fairfax High School. A month later, a student died from a shooting at Reseda High School.

The district began requiring the daily searches with metal-detecting wands in 2011 after two students were injured in a shooting at Gardena High School, district officials said.

At an informal presentation in January of good-attendance certificates, Principal Erick Mitchell said his campus was becoming a destination for families who wanted a smaller school setting. Last year, Castro Middle had an enrollment of 355 students.

The enrollment is 92 percent Latino, and most students are from low-income families.

Mitchell added that the school has made academic strides because more students are coming in better prepared from elementary school and because the school has emphasized long-term goals such as college and career.

This focus also has improved overall student behavior, he said.

“We have a new culture here,” Mitchell said. “I love this school. We have really good kids here. It’s the best-kept secret in town.”

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(Times staff writers Kate Mather and Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.)

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©2018 Los Angeles Times

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