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Deputy Lisa Jansen displays photos of weapons and ammunition at a news conference in Los Angeles on Feb. 21. (Mike Balsamo/AP)
An alert security officer at a Southern California high school helped thwart a potential attack Friday, two days after the deadly Valentine’s Day shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead, authorities said.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said they raced to prevent a copycat attack last Friday, acting on a tip from a security officer at El Camino High School in Whittier, southeast of Los Angeles.
The officer, Marino Chavez, overheard a 17-year-old student say he was going to launch an attack within three weeks, he said at a news conference. Chavez questioned the student, who claimed it was a joke, he said.
“He didn’t appear scared, but he was like, ‘Well, I didn’t mean it,’ ” Chavez said. “I said, ‘I know you students say a lot of things. But you can’t be saying these words.’ ”
Investigators detained the student and issued a search warrant of his home, Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell said. Authorities seized two AR-15 rifles and two handguns, along with about 90 rifle magazines each capable of holding 30 rounds, though they could not say how many were loaded at the time. An AR-15 was used by the gunman in Parkland, Fla., in one of the deadliest school shootings in history.
McDonnell said he believed the student had an “extensive” discipline history and was “moving in the direction” of an attack.
Chavez deflected credit for stopping a potential school shooting, telling reporters: “I’m not a hero; just doing my job.”
The teen was arrested for making a criminal threat. The student, who is being held without bail, remains unidentified due to being a minor, McDonnell said.
One recovered rifle was registered to the student’s brother, Daniel Barcenas, 28. The other was unregistered — a felony in California, McDonnell noted. Barcenas was charged with five criminal counts Tuesday, including possession of an assault weapon and bringing high-capacity magazines from Texas, McDonnell said. He claimed responsibility for the firearms.
Tips involving school violence received by county authorities went up “significantly” in January, compared with those received the same month last year, McDonnell added. The county has received 19 leads concerning threats involving schools since the Florida attacks alone. There were 52 received in all of 2017, pointing to an uptick in students mimicking threats.
Copycat threats have mushroomed on Snapchat and other social networks, fueling uneasiness on campuses across the country since the shooting in Florida.
Though most appeared to be hoaxes — “jokes,” as several suspects called them — administrators, police and school resource officers have been on high alert, looking out — warily — for students motivated to threaten or engage in similar behavior.
In Arkansas, a student allegedly threatened to “shoot up the high school like they did in Florida,” and was arrested. In southeastern Massachusetts, a social media post warned local high school students of a “Florida pt 2.”
In South Carolina, a ninth-grader was arrested after he allegedly posted a photo of himself on Snapchat wearing a mask and holding what appeared to be an assault rifle. That picture was captioned, “Round 2 of Florida tomorrow,” and alarmed authorities across the state line. The suspect claimed it was a joke.
When confronted by South Carolina deputies, the student in the photo said he posted it in jest.
And Wednesday morning, Long Beach Unified School District Superintendent Chris Steinhauser notified parents of an unconfirmed threat of a potential attack on Long Beach Polytechnic High School.
McDonnell said social media can be a warning sign — as when someone posts disturbing information signaling a potential attack — or it can be harnessed.
“They live their lives around social media” and can be numb to the seriousness of threats, he said, referring to students.
In a letter posted online Wednesday, Superintendent Hasmik Danielian of the Norwalk-La Mirada school district said officials were cooperating with the police and have maintained regular drills involving active shooters.
An armed officer assigned to the Florida school where a gunman killed 17 people last week stood outside the building during the shooting and did not intervene, the local sheriff says.
Deputy Scot Peterson has resigned after being suspended, Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said.
“I am devastated. Sick to my stomach. He never went in,” Sheriff Israel said.
Earlier this week President Trump said arming school teachers could prevent school shootings.
The proposal has long been championed by the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) gun lobby.
On Thursday, in the NRA’s first comments since the massacre, its head accused Democrats and media of “exploiting” the attack. Wayne LaPierre said “opportunists” were using the tragedy to expand gun control and abolish US gun rights.
Sheriff Israel said Mr Peterson was on campus, armed and in uniform when the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School campus in Parkland began.
He said video footage showed Mr Peterson arriving at the building where the shooting was taking place about 90 seconds after the first shots were fired and that he remained outside for about four minutes. The attack lasted six minutes, Sheriff Israel said.
Asked what Mr Peterson should have done, Sheriff Israel said: “Went in, addressed the killer, killed the killer.”
Mr Peterson is yet to publicly comment on what happened. Sheriff Israel said he had not given a reason for why he did not go into the building where the shooter was.
It is unclear if he will face charges.
Sheriff Israel said he would not be releasing the video showing Mr Peterson and might never do so, “depending on the prosecution and criminal case” against the 19-year-old suspect accused of carrying out the shooting, former student Nikolas Cruz.
The gunman used a semi-automatic AR-15 assault rifle, police say, and escaped the scene before being seen and arrested later.
Why was Deputy Peterson there?
School resource officers are police officers who are responsible for safety and crime prevention in schools, the US government says.
There are between 14,000 and 20,000 such officers in the US, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers.
Mr Peterson had been in his position at the school since 2009, local media report.
Were there any other failures?
Concerns have been raised about both the school’s video surveillance system and whether warnings about Nikolas Cruz were ignored.
It has been reported that the person watching the surveillance system was relaying information 20 minutes old to police, so officers believed the gunman was in a certain area when he was not.
It has also been reported that calls were made to local authorities in 2016 and 2017 expressing concern about Nikolas Cruz, including one saying he was planning to attack the school.
When will the school reopen?
Teachers will be allowed back in on Friday. Both students and teachers are invited to a reorientation on Sunday, ahead of classes resuming on Wednesday.
The three-storey building that was attacked is to be torn down.
Are teachers now going to be armed?
In recent days both President Trump and the NRA have spoken about this.
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington on Thursday, Mr LaPierre reiterated that his group backed it.
He said the NRA would help any US school with their safety and security, free of charge, adding that “opportunists” pushing for more gun control “hate the NRA. They hate the second amendment. They hate individual freedom”.
The second amendment in the US constitution protects the “right to keep and bear arms”.