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Relatives of the gunman who killed a student and a teacher during a St. Louis school shooting had long been concerned about his mental health and worked with police to take a gun away from him — possibly the same gun used in the attack, Police Commissioner Michael Sack said Wednesday.
Police and the FBI are working to determine what prompted 19-year-old Orlando Harris to force his way into Central Visual and Performing Arts High School on Monday and start shooting. Sack said the the carnage could have been far worse. The gunman was armed with an AR-15-style rifle and an estimated 600 rounds of ammunition.
Fifteen-year-old Alexzandria Bell and 61-year-old teacher Jean Kuczka died in the shooting. Four students suffered gunshot or graze wounds, two had bruises and one had a broken ankle — apparently from jumping out of the three-story building. Sack said all are recovering, as is a police officer who suffered cuts from broken glass.
Police believe Harris, who was killed by responding officers, had intended targets. They have not said if any of the victims were among them.
Harris’ mother was “heartbroken” by the shooting, Sack said. She and other relatives had long dealt with Harris’ mental health issues and even had him committed at times, Sack said at a news conference. They also monitored his mail and often checked his room to make sure he didn’t have a weapon.
At one point — Sack didn’t recall when — they found one.
“They were aware that he had acquired a firearm,” Sack said. “They worked with our department to transfer that to an adult who could legally possess one.”
Sack said it may have been the gun used in the school shooting. Police were working to determine that, and to determine how Harris obtained the weapon.
Harris, in a note left behind, lamented that he had no friends, no family, no girlfriend and a life of isolation. His note called it the “perfect storm for a mass shooter.”
“Mental health is a difficult thing," Sack said. "It’s hard to tell when somebody is going to be violent and act out, or if they’re just struggling, they’re depressed, and they might self-harm.”
Central Visual and Performing Arts shares a building with another magnet school, Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience, which also evacuated as the shooting unfolded. Central has 383 students, Collegiate 336.
The building was locked Monday morning and an unarmed security guard saw Harris trying to get in. Sack has declined to say how Harris forced his way inside.
Officers, some of whom were off-duty, arrived four minutes after the 911 call. Amid the chaos of kids, teachers and staff fleeing, officers asked some of them where the gunman was. Eight minutes after arriving, officers located Harris on the third floor, barricaded in a classroom. Police said in a news release that when Harris shot at officers, they shot back and broke through the door.
When Harris pointed his rifle at police, they fired several shots, killing him.
Alexzandria was found in a hallway and died at the scene. Kuczka was found in a classroom and died at a hospital.
It was the 40th school shooting this year resulting in injuries or death, according to a tally by Education Week — the most in any year since it began tracking shootings in 2018. The St. Louis shooting was the first to involve multiple deaths since a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in May, according to Education Week data.
As is common after school shootings, threats to other schools in the region have ticked up since Monday, said Jay Greenberg, special agent in charge of the St. Louis FBI office. Greenberg said many schools throughout the region have responded by bringing in police officers for the time being.
“It is increasing the trauma that all of our parents and students are experiencing," Greenberg said.
Amid the grief, there were glimpses of hope.
Fifteen-year-old Brian Collins is now home from the hospital, his life spared when a bullet to his jaw narrowly missed an artery.
Stephanie Malia Krauss, Brian’s godmother and aunt, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he was in health class when the gunman broke into the room, killing Kuczka. Though wounded, Brian escaped by jumping from the second-story window.
The bullet remains in his jaw. Krauss said Brian also faces other uncertainty.
Brian transferred to Central earlier this fall because of his love of art — he specializes in pencil charcoal drawings with fine details, Krauss said. He was shot in both hands and is wearing splints from the fingers to the elbows.
“There’s no way of knowing the extent of the injuries until follow-up appointments and the swelling goes down," Krauss said.
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