Staff at a Northern California school are being credited for their quick response to the sound of gunfire, which helped avoid a "horrific bloodbath" when a Tehama County man went on a shooting rampage on Tuesday, sheriff's officials said.
The day began normally, with parents driving and walking with their children to Rancho Tehama Elementary School, which is one of five schools in the Corning Elementary School District.
However, the sound of a gunshot pierced the air around 7:50 a.m., gaining the attention of a secretary and other school personnel. Two more shots quickly followed, Superintendent Richard Fitzpatrick said.
Immediately, school staff, without any direction from law enforcement agencies, "flawlessly" initiated a lock down, rushing students, aides, parents, teachers and others to safety inside Rancho Tehama Elementary School, where kindergartners through fifth graders study, he said.
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"Quite frankly, I am filled with a huge amount of gratitude as I stand before you here today,” Fitzpatrick said. “The reason that we have a situation where I have one student injured on campus and nothing worse happening on campus is because of the heroic actions of all members of my school staff — every single one of them.”
Outside, Kevin Janson Neal was randomly picking targets and shooting out of a car, Tehama County Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston said. In all, Neal shot 14 people, killing four, across seven crime scenes. The night before, he also gunned down his wife and dumped her body under floor boards in their house. She was his fifth victim.
Upon arriving at Rancho Tehama Elementary School, Fitzpatrick said, Neal rammed his white pickup truck into a gate at the north end of the campus, damaging the vehicle. He climbed out, clutching an "(assault rifle)-type weapon."
"At that time, the head custodian, who was shepherding students into the classroom, peeked his head around the building, saw the gentleman and drew his attention," Fitzpatrick said. "It is my understanding that several shots were fired towards the custodian at which time the custodian observed that ... he had problems with his gun jamming."
Johnston said surveillance video shows the shooter unsuccessfully trying to enter the school, which is attended by just under 100 students. Neal ran from the truck to the school's main quad, where the classrooms, cafeteria and school office are located, Fitzpatrick said. He shot at windows, doors and even walls, and jimmied bathroom and office doors in an attempt to enter the school.
By then, eight to 10 seconds had passed since staff members had completed the lockdown, locking all the school's doors and barricading themselves inside the building.
Neal failed to get into the school, but spent about six minutes emptying rounds into Rancho Tehama Elementary School, expending his ammunition. Fitzpatrick described him walking into a nearby field and opening fire into a neighborhood.
He then got "frustrated" and drove away in a stolen truck to continue shooting elsewhere, Johnston said.
"It is monumental that the school went on lockdown," he said. "I really, truly believe that we would have had a horrific bloodbath in that school if that school hadn't taken the action when they did."
Despite the school going into lockdown, Neal managed to injure seven children. One among them sustained two gunshot wounds — one in the chest and the other in his foot. Fitzpatrick believes the bullets came through a school wall. Staff rendered aid and comforted the student, who as of Wednesday is in hospital and listed in fair condition.
Two others were walking to school with their parents when they were injured, while some were hurt by glass as it shattered under the impact of bullets, Johnston said.
The rampage by a "mad man on the loose" ended when a patrol car rammed the vehicle Neal was driving and killed him in a shootout, he said.
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“Love and kindness and selflessness paired with the ability to professionally do what they did defeated evil yesterday,” Fitzpatrick said. “And the fact is we don't have another one of those stories where multiple children are dead because of the heroics of my school staff.”
Johnston pointed out that school staff members had performed drills on how to respond to active shooter situations and done exactly what they had learned.
"I urge all schools to practice these drills," he said.
For his part, Fitzpatrick thanked all the school's employees for being calm and courageous as everyone was evacuated to a community center before students were reunited with their parents.
"It was a very, very good result to possibly the worst situation that I can imagine," he said. "This was an administrator's nightmare. This is every educator in America's worst nightmare. And we were able to get through it with only one significant injury."
A vigil was planned on Wednesday evening and counseling has been made available to the community. Fitzpatrick said people who live in the relatively rural part of Northern California have strong ties to one another.
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"A situation which could have been catastrophic has turned into one for our students of hope and strength," he said. "We will reopen the school. They will return to their lives and everything still remains possible for them in their future."