Deputies have arrested four male students after uncovering a shooting plot targeting Summerville High School, authorities said.
At a press conference Saturday afternoon, Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele said the case came to him Wednesday when students noticed three suspects acting suspiciously and notified administrators. School staff on the Tuolumne campus immediately called the sheriff’s department.
During the investigation, detectives identified a fourth suspect. While serving two search warrants in the case, Mele said, authorities found “evidence verifying a plot to shoot staff and students at Summerville High School,” which the suspects later confessed to in statements to investigators. He said the plot was detailed, and included a list of victims, locations and methods for the attack.
“They were going to come on campus and shoot and kill as many people as possible on the campus,” Mele said. “It is particularly unsettling when our most precious assets —which are our students, their teachers — are targets for violence.”
Never miss a local story.
Authorities said the plot was in the beginning stages and no students or adults were hurt. Mele said he wanted to emphasize that there is no current danger to students or staff at the high school and the department is confident they have all the suspects involved in custody.
“I believe, with all my heart, the reason we were able to stop this was because we have a level of trust within our community,” Mele said. “When you have a level of trust with the law enforcement, your education – we meet monthly, we meet constantly – you can do this.”
Detectives arrested all four students on charges of conspiracy to commit an assault with deadly weapons on Friday afternoon at their homes and turned them over to the Tuolumne County Probation Department. The suspects’ names were not released because they are juveniles. Mele also would not release their ages or grade levels. Mele said all of the suspects’ families have cooperated fully with the investigation.
Mele said the plan was uncovered when students overheard the suspects talking about it at school and alerted staff Wednesday afternoon. Evidence was later found included paperwork with statements and a list of potential victims including “several students and/or staff” who would be targets at an upcoming event on campus. Three of the students were taken out of school immediately on Wednesday and as the investigation continued the fourth was taken out of school on Friday morning.
No weapons were found, but Mele said the students were in the process of trying to obtain some to carry out the attack.
“(They were) pretty dog-gone close. (Close) enough to keep me up last night, to keep my detectives and lieutenants up last night. There was an event that would be coming up that they specifically talked about,” Mele said. “To talk about specifically what, I don’t want to, but enough to move forward ... that we took four children away from their homes in order to protect other children.”
Mele said he did not know the motive for the planned attack, though he said bullying and cyber-bullying continues to be a problem on campuses across the country. He also addressed the issue of violence in the media.
“I have no idea why a group of individuals would want to do this,” he said. “When we turn on the TV, violence is always on, or at our fingertips on the computer. I think children today have a hard time trying to understand the difference between what is reality and fiction. To say why, I don’t know why. I do know the discussion needs to start not only in our community, but throughout the nation, about what can we do to stop this violence.”
Assistant District Attorney Eric Hovatter said his office will collect the information about the case from the sheriff’s department at the beginning of the week and begin to decide what charges will be filed. The four suspects will be arraigned as juveniles before a Tuolumne County Superior Court Judge.
“It is clear from past history such as Columbine and Sandy Hook, as well as other recent events in Oregon, that children are willing and capable of planning and carrying out acts of violence against fellow students and teachers on school grounds,” Havatter said. “While it is easy to say that would never happen in Tuolumne County, the public and local law enforcement must remain vigilant as they did here. That the suspects are young does not minimize the gravity of the conduct nor the potential for great harm to many people.”
Counselors will be on hand at Summerville High School on Monday morning for any student who requires help. The Summerville Union High School District has 720 students across its campuses.
Parents were notified via a robo-call Thursday afternoon about the incident and subsequent investigation.
Sonora resident Kristin Wilson’s daughter is a sophomore at Summerville High. Wilson read about the arrests online Saturday morning and came to the press conference for answers.
“You watch it on the news all the time, it happens all the time. But you don’t think it will happen to your daughter. When it becomes this really it hits a part of your heart you never want to be touched,” she said.
The investigation in Tuolumne began the day before a man shot and killed nine people at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore.
As a teacher at Columbia Elementary, Wilson said she is familiar with the drills and training staff go through in case of such events. But she said it still didn’t feel real and cried when she heard of the plot. Her daughter is scared about going to school Monday.
“This happens so much and it needs to stop,” she said.