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, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood 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 at a Kern County hospital Thursday night. He was expected to undergo surgery on Friday.
“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.”
“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 that sits 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 former Mayor Dave Noerr. “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 suspect’s name is on the lips of everyone in town, but authorities aren’t releasing it because he’s a juvenile. He had felt bullied by the victim for more than a year, said Youngblood, who added that the claim was still being investigated.
Trish Montes described her neighbor as “a short guy” and “small” who was teased about his stature by many.
Montes said her son had worked at the school and tutored the boy last year.