Suspect, 15, arrested hours after Santa Rosa High lockdown over report of armed student

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A report of a male student with a gun at Santa Rosa High School prompted the lockdown of the campus and two neighboring schools Friday morning, upending the final day of classes for thousands of high school students ordered to seek shelter as heavily armed officers executed a room-by-room search for the teen.

The nearly three-hour lockdown, which began shortly before 11 a.m., ended without any gunfire and injuries after the 15-year-old suspect, a Santa Rosa High freshman from Sebastopol, was taken into custody in the nearby Junior College neighborhood.

He had been suspended from school a week ago but was on campus visiting a friend, Santa Rosa Police Capt. John Cregan said, adding he did not know the reason for the student’s suspension.

Police said they had no indication that the student had brought the weapon to campus to harm anyone.

“I think that’s the one thing to stress,” Cregan said. “There is no evidence whatsoever to show that he was there to commit any violence.”

But the incident brought an otherwise festive day at Santa Rosa’s flagship public high school to a troubling halt just hours before the commencement ceremony for 400 senior students. It also interrupted a graduation at adjacent Ridgway High and led officers to block access to neighboring Santa Rosa Junior College — putting the city’s largest collection of school campuses, about 170 acres just north of downtown, completely off limits.

Though Friday’s incident ended with no outbreak of violence, some of the affected students and parents described being overcome with anxiety and fear after learning about the potential threat on campus — a sentiment heightened by the wave of school shootings nationwide in recent years, they said.

“I was really scared,” said Leslie Mendez, 18, Santa Rosa High senior who was with classmates at graduation practice when the lockdown began. Teachers ushered the gathered seniors into the gymnasium for safety.

“I just kept telling myself that ‘This is not happening, this is just not happening,’” said Mendez.

The suspect, who was not identified because he is a minor, was stopped by a Sonoma County Sheriff’s deputy on Beaver and Benton streets about four blocks east of the campus at 12:48 p.m., police Lt. Ryan Corcoran said. No gun was found on him, though he later told police he had disassembled a weapon and disposed of it at a nearby McDonald’s on Mendocino Avenue, where he had been spotted prior to his arrest, police said.

Surveillance video showed the suspect had visited the restaurant and a realistic-looking BB gun adorned with floral decals and an empty magazine was found by police in a garbage can in the restaurant’s men’s bathroom, Corcoran added.

The boy was subsequently arrested and transported to the Sonoma County Juvenile Justice Center on suspicion of felony possessing a weapon on school grounds.

A fellow student made the initial 10:41 a.m. report that triggered a response from law enforcement unlike any in the high school’s 145-year past. The witness told school staff he had seen another student at the school’s music building rack the slide of a handgun in his hands, police said.

The report was relayed by a school official to campus Officer Matt Crosbie with the Santa Rosa Police Department. Crosbie recognized the suspect based on the witness’s description and immediately initiated a lockdown of the entire 2,000-student campus, police said. He called for backup and ran to the music building, though the student was no longer there, police said.

The lockdown forced students on the campus to huddle in classrooms, with shades drawn on the windows and doors locked. Some texted and called family members to tell them they were unharmed.

Adjacent Ridgway High had about 400 students, family members and staff on campus at the time, and was holding their graduation, which was suspended. The headquarters nextdoor for Santa Rosa City Schools, where about 100 district employees work, also were locked down, as was Santa Rosa Junior College, which borders the high school to the north and which had about 100 people on campus after letting out last week.

“Because the incident was so close to our campus we decided to lockdown our campus as a precautionary measure,” Santa Rosa Junior College Police Chief Robert Brownlee said.

Police armed with assault rifles patrolled the high school and a law enforcement helicopter circled above while officers carried out a systematic search of the campus in an attempt to find the teen.

The commotion was visible to startled students in classrooms, where final exams were underway Friday morning.

Sophomore Elias Weare was in the middle of a math final when he heard a loud alarm and saw flashing blue and white lights, he said. His teacher reacted swiftly, shutting blinds to the classroom and locking doors. Students scrambled into a corner of the room away from the windows.

“We just sat there and it was so quiet. We could not hear anything happening outside of the classroom and no one was really talking,” Weare said. “I was just waiting for the sounds of gunshots to start.”

Ridgway student Sarah Torre, 19, said she was midway through her graduation ceremony on campus when an announcement over a loudspeaker notified of a campus-wide a lockdown due to nearby police activity. Parents, children, students and their teachers tried not to panic as they ran into the a gym, she said.

“You never think this could happen and then it starts happening like today and you’re just so worried about the lives of people you care about when you’re looking around you,” Torre said.

Dani Burlison said her daughter, a senior at the school, was at graduation rehearsal in preparation for a ceremony later that day when Burlison received a Nixle alert from police about the lockdown. She texted her daughter, Ava Burlison, who said she and hundreds of other seniors at the school were sheltering in the school’s gym.

“They’re excited about graduation but they’re also like ‘What’s going on?” Dani Burlison said. “It’s very stressful.”

The younger Burlison told her mother she felt safe with officers at the school. A video posted on social media during the shutdown showed some Santa Rosa High students playing basketball in the gym as they waited for the school to reopen.

Outside the police perimeter, a number of parents waited at the nearby McDonald’s and shared information in between their texts and calls with students on campus. Others gathered at Emeritus Hall at the Santa Rosa Junior College, where police were answering questions and planning family reunifications.

Classes were scheduled to end at noon, so many parents were already set to arrive at campus at that time.

A Nixle alert about the Santa Rosa High lockdown was relayed to the public at about 10:49 a.m., and another message on the alert system advised the lockdown had been lifted for the school at about 1:20 p.m. School officials made separate advisories to parents through automated calls and emails.

Suzanne Karp, 51, was among the parents who drove to the school after hearing about the lockdown. While other parents around her were able to reach their children by text or call, she grew increasingly worried because she was not able to get through to her son, Zeke Graham, 16.

She later learned his cellphone had been collected before a math final and had not been returned to him when she tried to contact him.

Realizing after several hours that he was safe, she said, was an incredible relief.

“This is the moment I’ve waited for for three hours,” Karp said as the two walked across Ridgway Avenue to the family car. “We’re elated.”

The lockdown was lifted at 1:22 p.m. after police announced that the suspect was in custody.

Two residents near the intersection of Benton and Beaver streets — Sue Gruber and her husband Matt Fox — said they saw police swarm the teen near a white SUV parked under a tree.

Gruber said he had not seen the teen in the neighborhood before.

“I’m just so bummed for those kids,” Gruber said hours before the school’s commencement. Her son, Cooper Fox, is a senior at Santa Rosa High and was with the group held in the gym. “Those kids worked hard for that.”

Santa Rosa High’s graduation ceremony, however, continued as planned. More than 400 seniors crossed the stage at the school’s Nevers Field later in the evening.

“The last day of school should be a joyful day, especially for graduating seniors,” Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Diann Kitamura said in a statement. “So now we are focusing again on the Santa Rosa High and Ridgway High graduates with a renewed sense of gratitude for their accomplishments.”

Friday’s police activity was the largest law enforcement response to a reported gun on a local campus, but it was not the first.

A false report of a gunman at the Santa Rosa Junior College in January prompted the an evacuation of the schools’ art building in January. The incident was the first time in the school’s history that campus police responded to a report of an active shooter, college officials said.

More recently, Sebastopol police arrested a 19-year-old man in April who allegedly brandished an unregistered rifle at two Analy High School students who were waiting to be picked up at the front of campus after school. The man, Cabrera Salcedo, denied wanting to hurt anyone, police said.

Staff Writers Susan Minichiello, Guy Kovner and Andrew Beale contributed to this report.

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