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RIO RANCHO – A single gunshot fired in a hallway at Cleveland High School before classes began Thursday morning ignited fears of an active shooter, causing the school to be evacuated and today’s classes to be canceled.
Students and staff poured out of the building, congregating first at a soccer field, then at the nearby Santa Ana Star Center arena, where they waited to be reunited with their parents.
No one was injured, and police quickly took a 16-year-old student into custody.
Joshua Owen, 16, is facing three counts: attempted murder, unlawful carrying of a deadly weapon and unlawful possession of a handgun. He has been booked into the Bernalillo County Juvenile Detention Center.
Police have not said if he was targeting anyone and have not commented on a possible motive.
The shooting came on a date already marked by gun violence, as some schools nationwide held vigils or moments of silence in remembrance of the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., a year ago Thursday.
Some Cleveland High students were told to shelter in place, then were evacuated to the soccer field designated as a safe area. Older teenagers who drove to school were allowed to leave the school campus on their own, while the rest were bused to the Santa Ana Star Center.
Amy Stoker said that when she got the call from her 16-year-old son that someone had fired a gun in the school, she thought it was a joke. Then, her 17-year-old called and told her he was there when it happened.
“My son initially said, ‘I was shot at,’ but I later found out he was not shot directly at, just up in the air,” Stoker said. “He was in the closest proximity – he, his girlfriend and the teacher.”
She said the three were told to stay in a locked classroom – while everyone else was evacuated – so they could be interviewed by police. She said her son did not know Owen but had seen him around school.
“It seemed surreal,” Stoker said. “It seemed like it wasn’t really happening.”
School will resume Tuesday, the day after Presidents Day for the more than 2,500 students who attend Cleveland High. Counselors will be available to talk with any students who want help.
Rio Rancho police officers, fire personnel and students and staff at district schools have been training for a school shooting, so when they got the call, they were ready, said Rio Rancho Police Chief Stewart Steele.
Steele discussed some details of the incident at a news conference Thursday morning, flanked by Mayor Gregg Hull, district Superintendent Sue Cleveland and other police department and school personnel.
“This morning, a little after 7 o’clock in the morning, we received a phone call about a shot fired here at V. Sue Cleveland High School,” Steele said. “Officers were on scene within minutes.”
He said when they arrived they found that one shot had been fired. A handgun was left behind and officers were told the suspect student – later identified as Owen – had run out of the building. No one was injured.
“Officers did a really good job of tracking the suspect. In their search they located the suspect off campus,” Steele said. “They took the suspect into custody, and the suspect has been transported and is doing interviews at this time.”
He said Owen was found less than a mile south of the school, in an arroyo.
Investigators are trying to determine a motive.
RRPD officers and SWAT teams combed the campus, and New Mexico State Police officers helped keep traffic at bay for much of the morning.
“It was extremely scary,” Steele said. “It’s in my heart and my throat, and I wasn’t in the school. I can’t imagine being a student here and what they went through. Thank God it ended the way it did, with no injuries.”
Three miles from the school, students congregated at the Santa Ana Star Center. The main arena of the center was a hub of activity and restrained chaos, as parents and students walked around trying to connect with one another.
Students recounted hearing what sounded like a shot, followed by announcements over the public address system to go outside and that it was not a drill. Others described arriving at school and being unable to enter because of the sea of students pouring out.
A cellphone photo began circulating on social media showing a gun with an attached clip lying on the floor – presumably the shooter’s gun. Rio Rancho police could not confirm if that was the handgun used.
Sophomore Kayleigh Barela, 15, stood outside the center clutching a teddy bear that she had brought to school as a Valentine’s Day gift for a friend.
Instead, it comforted her Thursday morning.
“I just got off the bus and went to the bathroom and the next thing I know I heard kind of a loud pop,” she recalled. “It’s Valentine’s Day so I just assumed it was a balloon. The next thing you know, you hear adults telling everybody to evacuate. So I began telling all the girls in the bathroom to evacuate.”
It was just after 7 a.m., and the students were instructed to walk to a soccer field outside the school, where Kayleigh ran into a friend who told her that she and her brother were standing behind the shooter when the gun was fired. The shooter, she was told, “shot the gun up into the air and then dropped it and evacuated with everybody else.”
Kayleigh said she became particularly anxious because the evacuated students were outside for more than an hour before buses took them to the Santa Ana Star Center. During that wait, she said, “my stomach dropped because I was thinking the shooter could be outside with us.”
The event has left Kayleigh uneasy.
“I’m not sure I feel safe anymore coming to school,” she said. “It gives me anxiety knowing it’s so easy for someone to bring a gun to school, and you don’t know if someone else will do it, too. This isn’t OK. It shouldn’t happen here. I think we need stricter gun-control laws.”
Kim Fletcher, mother of a 14-year-old freshman, said it’s “crazy” that an incident like this should happen at a high school in Rio Rancho.
“I’m not totally surprised, but still, it’s scary,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s a sign of the times. I know they’re beefing up security and maybe it’s time for metal detectors.”