With heightened security and trauma counselors on hand, Perry Hall High School will restart its school year Tuesday, the day after a student shot in the cafeteria was left in critical condition and another student was taken into custody as the suspected gunman.
The shooting took place on the first day of classes Monday as several hundred students were in the cafeteria, where the sound of gunfire initially seemed like just another piece of the aural landscape. Students said it sounded like the pop of air that escapes when a bag of chips is opened, or the clap of a door slamming shut.
Instead, it was gunfire, striking a 17-year-old student who was airlifted to Maryland Shock Trauma Center as classmates and strangers offered prayers for him at impromptu gatherings and across social media. Police said they do not believe the victim, who was not identified, was targeted by the shooter.
Witnesses said a school counselor quickly grabbed the shooter and pinned him up against a vending machine. Police also declined to identify the 15-year-old suspect, who was taken into custody shortly after the 10:45 a.m. shooting, until they decide whether to charge him as a juvenile or an adult.
"He's in custody, our investigators are talking to him, he's cooperating, but he's not been formally charged yet," said Elise Armacost, a Baltimore County police spokeswoman, who noted that juveniles' records are not public. "Is he going to be charged as a juvenile, or is he going to be charged as an adult? I don't know the answer to those questions yet."
Police said they cannot confirm information appearing on various social media networks. Several parents and students pointed to a Facebook posting by someone who said he attended Perry Hall High and spoke of the first day of school being the last day of his life.
A man who identified himself as the suspect's father told the Associated Press that his son had been bullied but declined to give further details. A woman who said she was related to the father gave the following statement on the family's behalf: "We are horrified. We did not see this coming and our thoughts and prayers are with the victim and the victim's family."
Students described a day that suddenly turned chaotic during an early lunch break in the cafeteria of the school, the county's largest with nearly 2,200 students. Rather than the festive atmosphere of a school community returning after summer break, police helicopters whirred overhead, students dove under cafeteria tables and, as the news spread quickly, distraught parents tried to reach their children, in person or by phone or text message.
Throughout the day, a sense of disbelief pervaded.
Jeremy Knavel, 16, said he couldn't believe his eyes when he saw a student emerge from a bathroom Monday morning, taking a gun out from under his shirt.
"I thought it was a joke," he said. "Then when I heard the shot, I ran. I'm shaken still. I can't believe it actually happened."
Sophomore Nick DiPaula, 15, said he and a friend were talking in the cafeteria when they heard a loud bang and turned to see what it was.
"We just see him with the gun, and he's aiming it at my table," DiPaula said.
A school counselor he identified as Jesse Wasmer ran over and tackled the gunman as he and other students hit the floor and another teacher started yelling, "Get out of the building, get out of the building!" DiPaula said.
Wasmer was hailed as a hero by colleagues and across the Internet, where a "Thanks Mr. Wasmer" Facebook page was created. He could not be reached to comment, and school officials declined to discuss details of the incident.
The actions of Wasmer and other teachers in the cafeteria who intervened "were really beyond what anyone can be expected to do," and "made that situation the best it could have been in such a horrible time," said Matt Smoot, a science teacher in his fifth year at the school.
Dennis Sullivan, the school's lacrosse coach until last year, whose son Aidan is a senior at the school, said he knows Wasmer well and was not surprised by his actions. "He's definitely a hero in my book. He saved a lot of people's lives today with what he did," Sullivan said Monday night.
New Baltimore County schools Superintendent Dallas Dance, on his first day of classes after being hired this spring to head the school district, praised the school's "heroic, brave faculty."
Dance said Perry Hall High will be open Tuesday with additional security at the school. The Police Department's Critical Incident Stress Debriefing team will provide support for students and faculty, Armacost said.
Students and parents alike were unnerved by the incident, saying the school has always been considered safe.
It was "overwhelming," said Julia Schoennagel, 14, a freshman. "It was my first day, and I was excited to meet my teachers and see who was in my classes," she said. "It was unreal, I couldn't believe it. You never think that would happen at your school."