School Climate & Safety

‘Accidental’ Shooting in Houston High School Sparks New Rounds of Questions

By Catherine Gewertz — January 16, 2020 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

When a 16-year-old boy shot and killed a fellow student at a Houston high school this week, it set off yet another round of questions about how students manage to get guns onto campuses undetected. But the Texas tragedy also calls attention to the unique and difficult fallout from gun incidents that are deemed accidental.

The shooting in Houston happened late Tuesday afternoon, at Bellaire High School on the outskirts of the city. Local law enforcement and school officials have been tight-lipped about the incident, saying only that the suspect, whom they wouldn’t name, is in custody and that he’s been charged as a juvenile with manslaughter.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said at a press conference that her office opted not to charge the boy with murder because, even though he pulled the trigger, so the act was “reckless,” he didn’t appear to have intended to kill 19-year-old Cesar Cortes. Cortes was a senior at Bellaire High who had already enlisted in the U.S. Army, according to local media reports.

Bellaire High was closed Wednesday, but it reopened Thursday. Houston school district officials said they’d provide extra security personnel and crisis counselors to support students.

Tuesday’s shooting was the second campus incident of firearms violence that resulted in injury or death in 2020, according to Education Week’s school shooting tracker. Cortes became the first person to die in a school shooting this year, according to the tracker.

Take Time to ‘Process the Incident’

Sherry Zelsdorf is a Los Angeles middle school teacher who was injured in 2018, along with several of her students, when a gun, brought to school by a student, fired from inside a backpack. In an interview, Zelsdorf urged officials at Bellaire High to take the time that’s needed to reevaluate their safety procedures, and to process the incident with staff and students.

When shootings are deemed accidental, or when they’re not rampages, with advance planning and multiple victims, schools risk treating them like “maybe they’re not as big of a deal” and shortchanging the process of addressing physical and emotional safety issues, Zelsdorf said.

When she returned to Salvador Castro Middle School, after recuperating from shrapnel wounds to her head, “my school just kind of wanted to move on,” Zelsdorf said. “I just felt like things weren’t addressed, like how were were going to keep this from happening in the future?”

Feeling “emotionally unsafe” was a big part of her decision to change schools, Zelsdorf said. She now teaches 8th grade science at Paul Revere Charter Middle School, in Los Angeles’ wealthy Brentwood neighborhood. She said that she feels safe there because there are safety protocols that all staff know about, and there are ongoing discussions about safety, with “good communication” from her administration.

Nonetheless, Zelsdorf’s daily life still shows the fallout from her trauma two years ago. She can’t participate in lockdown drills, because she finds it too upsetting to watch children go under their desks, she said. A recent accidental pull of her school’s fire alarm sent her into a tailspin when she saw an administrator running across the quad. She has her students put their backpacks under their desks, because she fears having to step over one.

Students Reportedly Knew About the Gun Being on Campus

The Los Angeles incident in Zelsdorf’s classroom has something in common with this week’s incident in Houston: in each case, students knew that a fellow student had a gun on campus, but didn’t report it to any adults or authorities. The Houston school district has a tip line that allows anonymous reports online or by phone. Zelsdorf sees this as yet another reminder that most schools haven’t mastered the technique of creating space where children feel safe to report what they know.

As they try to keep campuses safe, schools struggle with balancing students’ civil rights and their physical safety. Random searches are one tactic school police have used, but they’ve come under attack for alleged disproportionate use against minority students. In the Houston Independent School District, most schools don’t have metal detectors and police do not conduct random searches at most schools. In general, searches are conducted only with probable cause.

Los Angeles Unified, in fact, voted last June to end a policy that allows students to be “wanded,” or randomly searched. According to district policy, trained personnel can still search students if they have reasonable cause. The wanding practice is still in place in schools until July, when the school board is supposed to propose an alternative school-security policy, said district spokesman Daryl Strickland.

In Houston, there is still much to sort out. The victim’s uncle, Cesar Diaz, told The New York Times that he’s uneasy with the determination that the shooting was an accident. He’s heard from his nephew’s friends in Bellaire High’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps that the suspect, who also participated in that program, had a history of bullying and had brought the gun to a JROTC meeting to show his peers.

“We don’t see this as accidental,” he said. “We are holding the school accountable.”

Houston TV station KPRC located four students who were present when the shooting happened. They said that the suspect and Cortes were getting ready for JROTC drill practice, and were in that building’s supply closet, where uniforms and practice rifles are kept, when the younger boy lifted his shirt and showed them a gun he had tucked into his waistband.

“I think he was only trying to show me, but Cesar was standing next to me,” said one of the students, identified in that report only as Brandon. “He pulls it out of his pants, and he cocks it and a bullet comes out.”

Image: Cesar Cortes, a 19-year-old senior, was shot and killed earlier this week by a classmate at Bellaire High School in Bellaire, Texas, authorities said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety What the Research Says A Hallmark of School Shooters: Long History of Social Rejection
New research finds that shooters in K-12 schools are more often "failed joiners" than loners.
5 min read
Butler County Sheriff Deputies stand on the scene at Madison Local Schools, in Madison Township in Butler County, Ohio, after a school shooting on Feb. 29, 2016.
Sheriff deputies were on the scene of a shooting at Madison Local Schools, in Butler County, Ohio, in 2016.
Cara Owsley/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP
School Climate & Safety 4 Myths About Suspensions That Could Hurt Students Long Term
New longitudinal research shows that longer in- and out-of-school suspensions have severe consequences for students.
5 min read
Image of a student sitting at a desk in a school hallway.
Jupiterimages/Getty
School Climate & Safety Photos The Tense and Joyous Start to the 2021 School Year, in Photos
Students are headed back to school with the threat of the Delta variant looming. How is this playing out across the country? Take a look.
School Climate & Safety Former NRA President Promotes Gun Rights at Fake Graduation Set Up by Parkland Parents
A former NRA president invited to give a commencement address to a school that doesn’t exist was set up to make a point about gun violence.
Lisa J. Huriash, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
2 min read
David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, speaks during the CPAC meeting in Washington on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2010.
David Keene, the former president of the NRA, promoted gun rights in a speech he thought was a rehearsal for a commencement address to graduating students in Las Vegas. The invitation to give the speech was a set up by Parkland parents whose son was killed in the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP