OAKLAND — The day after a pistol discharged in a Cole Middle School classroom, causing no injury, parents, students and community members met to talk about why a 13-year-old might have felt compelled to bring a loaded weapon to school and how they could prevent such an incident from happening again.
"This is actually a principal's call for help," Principal Ivory Brooks said Wednesday evening to the group seated in a large circle in the school's auditorium.
On Tuesday morning, an eighth-grader went to school with a .32-caliber pistol tucked in his pocket. He and another boy were playing with the gun during the first class period when it fired, Brooks said. The bullet struck the heater and shattered into pieces, without hitting anyone.
The loaded weapon soon was found on the floor in the corner of the room and recovered by security officers. Damoni Magano, who was in the room at the time, said his classmates were stunned — "quiet and shocked," as he put it.
The suspected shooter was arrested on five weapons-related misdemeanor counts, including bringing a firearm to a school, negligent discharge of a firearm, carrying a concealed firearm, carrying a loaded firearm and possession of a firearm by a minor, authorities said.
He is scheduled to appear in juvenile court Thursday; a judge will determine whether he will remain in custody at juvenile hall or be released to relatives while the case proceeds. The teen will also face an expulsion hearing, according to the district's protocol for such weapons offenses, district spokesman Troy Flint said.
"We're just devastated," said Jumoke Hinton Hodge, Oakland school board member-elect for the West Oakland district. "We've taken these huge steps, and that school's been doing really well."
On Wednesday night, many of the participants tried to put the incident into a neighborhood and citywide context. An after-school coordinator talked about the dangers some of the youths face simply walking to and from school, and that some might carry a weapon out of fear. Others stressed the importance of teaching children that it's OK to tell an adult when they see a safety threat, and to create more ways for them to report problems anonymously.
Tracy Smith, whose son was in the classroom, said she learned after school that some students had seen the gun before it discharged.
"When I asked them, 'Why didn't you tell someone that someone had a gun?' they shrugged their shoulders!'" she said.
Jerome Gourdine, principal of East Oakland's Frick Middle School, told the group that his school faces the same challenge Smith described.
"There is a strong, strong belief that 'snitches get stitches,'" Gourdine said. "It's a constant battle to break down that philosophy."
Many at the meeting emphasized that this was an isolated incident and said the school generally is safe. Brooks said nearly half of his 70-some students have a 3.0 GPA or better and that Cole has substantially reduced its suspension and expulsion rates through a restorative justice program that focuses on violence prevention.
Still, a few of the parents and students recommended that the school conduct backpack inspections, or even install a metal detector.
"That one incident could have taken one of these kids' lives. It could have been him," she said, looking at her son. She gestured to another boy sitting nearby: "It could have been him."
Cole Middle School has only an eighth grade this year. It is one of many public schools across the city to be phased out as part of the district's school reform efforts. The new West Oakland Middle School — on the old Lowell campus — is slated to move in to the Cole building next year. At least two teachers from the new school attended the meeting.
"Cole Middle School is a wonderful school," Brooks said. "Cole Middle School has students who are courageous, who are highly intelligent and who are highly motivated."
He added, "Last night, it really sunk in that one of the young people that you're looking at could have not been here because of what happened in that classroom."
Another community meeting to address the problem is scheduled for 4 p.m. Dec. 1 at the middle school. The school district has established an anonymous tip line for students and parents throughout the city to report potential dangers: 510-532-4867.