LOS ANGELES – Security officers wielding metal detecting wands meticulously searched students Wednesday as they waited in a long line outside a Los Angeles high school where two 15-year-olds were shot in a classroom a day earlier.
The stepped-up security measures come after a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun being carried in a backpack by a 10th-grader discharged Tuesday when he put the bag down on a desk at Gardena High School, authorities said.
A bullet pierced a boy in the neck, exited, and hit a girl in the head. The boy was doing well Wednesday, while the girl remained in serious condition with a skull fracture.
The girl regained consciousness and could move her body after surgery to remove a blood clot from her brain caused by the bullet's impact, said Julie Rees, spokeswoman for Los Angeles County Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. The boy was expected to be discharged Wednesday night, Rees said.
The 17-year-old suspect, who was already on probation for a fight at school, was arrested. Police said two other students were also taken into custody for investigation of concealing evidence.
A boy traded clothes with the fleeing suspect, and a girl took the backpack, police Detective A. Batris said.
In an unrelated incident, authorities said a bulletproof vest saved the life of a Los Angeles school police officer who was shot Wednesday as he confronted a man who appeared to breaking into cars near El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills. Also Wednesday, a 16-year-old boy was shot in a restaurant parking lot near his high school in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell, authorities said. The Bell High School student was shot once in the abdomen, but his vital signs appeared good when he was taken to a hospital, Bell police Captain Anthony Miranda said.
A preliminary investigation determined the lone shot came from a pickup truck that sped away after the shooting, Miranda said. Authorities were questioning a person of interest in the case Wednesday evening. There have been no arrests.
Police Chief Charlie Beck said the man got out of a car and fired several times, hitting the officer at least once in the chest. A manhunt was under way.
Security experts and school officials say it is almost impossible to completely prevent students from bringing guns onto school campuses, but there are basic precautions that should be followed, including random metal-detecting checks.
Since 1993, Los Angeles Unified School District has required some campuses to randomly check students with hand-held metal-detectors every day at different times.
A preliminary review of security at Gardena, however, showed the 2,400-student school had lapsed in that procedure, a district official said.
There was no check on Tuesday, and possibly not on other days as well, said Deputy Superintendent John Deasy.
"I think it's at least fair to say from the level of review at this moment that it was sporadic," he said.
After an investigation, disciplinary action will be taken that could involve firing some officials, Deasy said.
School Police Chief Steven Zipperman, who heads a force of 340 police officers and 147 school safety officers who patrol about 1,000 campuses, noted that even if the school had conducted a random check, it may not have revealed the gun in the backpack.
Zipperman said he'll be reviewing compliance with the district's security procedures and ways to tighten them.
"Secondary schools should be doing random searches on a daily basis," he said. "We'll be taking a look at the current frequency of that."
Although some observers call for metal-detector searches of all students, the long line at Gardena High demonstrated the logistical problem with that, Zipperman said.
"It's not feasible to run these schools as if you were boarding an airplane," Zipperman said. "There has to be that fine balance between not disrupting school operations and safety and security."
Random checks are an effective deterrent to kids who think of bringing weapons to school, said Ken Trump, president of consulting firm National School Safety and Security Services. But they must be truly random, conducted at different times of the day and in different places on campus, even on buses, he said.
The best line of defense is an alert staff and student body, Trump said, noting most incidents of guns at schools are reported by kids. "You have to create a climate where it's not seen as snitching, it's saving lives," he said.
The school district has an anonymous tip line to report suspicious activity, Zipperman said.
Surveillance cameras, metal detectors and X-ray machines are other tools increasingly being used by schools, along with basic procedures such as limiting building access to one entrance, said Patrick Fiel, former security director at Washington, D.C., public schools who is now a consultant.
Above all, experts said schools need to think proactively about preventing violence.
"It's a mentality. A lot of schools say it's not going to happen to us," Fiel said. "But it's happening more often in suburban, urban and rural schools."
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