School Climate & Safety

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

By Catherine Gewertz — January 16, 2020 4 min read
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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.