Garfield Shooting Spurs Appeal For Help To Keep Guns Away From Youths

Police, school and city officials at Garfield High School today called yesterday's shooting that wounded two students an isolated incident unrelated to gang activity, but called for a greater effort to keep guns out of the hands of youths.

"We must come together as a community. This random type of violence could have happened anywhere," said Seattle School Board President Linda Harris.

"We need the kids to say they will not tolerate guns and they will not tolerate drugs at school," said City Councilwoman Sue Donaldson.

With attendance only slightly down, according to school officials, regular classes resumed this morning following the wounding of an 18-year-old male and a 15-year-old female student. A 15-year-old boy has been taken into custody in connection with the shooting and was scheduled to appear at a bail hearing later today.

This morning, the number of security officers at the 1,400-student Central Area school was increased. The incident also may prompt the Seattle School Board to reconsider the use of metal detectors at the doors of public middle and high schools. On first hearing of the shooting yesterday, Harris said that if metal detectors are "what it would take to make the schools secure, then we should do it."

This morning, though, she seemed more skeptical that metal detectors at school doors would be the answer. "There's no quick fix," she said.

Seattle police Assistant Chief Ed Joiner said the handgun used in the shooting was stolen several months ago, but he did not know how long the suspect had it in his possession. He said the suspect had left school yesterday morning to retrieve the gun after getting into an argument with the boy he later shot near a cafeteria crowded with more than 100 students.

The shooting is believed to be the first ever inside a Seattle public school, said Errol Graves, the district's chief security officer. However, a Hamilton Middle School teacher was shot with a pellet gun at that school in 1991 by a student she had flunked.

And last January, teacher Neal Summers was fatally shot at the entrance to Whitman Middle School as he arrived for work. A former student has been charged in that case. Also last year, student Melissa Fernandes was killed outside Ballard High School in a drive-by shooting.

After the Fernandes murder, the School Board considered but rejected metal detectors - which cost $5,000 each and require additional staffing and remodeling. The board reasoned that the weapons problem was mostly gang-related and occurred outside the schools, Harris said.

Instead, the board authorized an additional $300,000 for six more security monitors - for a total of 35 - around middle and high schools and some portable metal detectors to be used at dances.

"We didn't want to put in metal detectors. We didn't want our schools to look like armed encampments," Harris said.

For the students who routinely ate lunch only a few feet from yesterday's shooting, chaos quickly set in. The incident began shoftly after a morninglong assembly touting anti-violence had been dismissed.

An argument and fight between two students escalated after one pulled a gun. Seattle police said the other student ran outside the west side of the school at 400 23rd Ave.

The armed student chased him outside and eventually back into the northwest corner of the building, where several shots were fired.

One shot hit the fleeing student, Hassan Coaxum, 18, in the leg. He was released from Harborview Medical Center yesterday. Another shot hit a nearby 15-year-old girl, Rachel Thompson, in the left knee. She remained at Harborview in satisfactory condition.

Luka Vitasovic, 14, who witnessed the scene, said he tried to bolt from the lunchroom when he saw the gun. Several students hit the floor, while others fled, causing a panicky pileup in a hallway.

"I ended up with about 15 people on top of me," Vitasovic said. "It was like getting caught at the bottom of a mad rush."

The suspect fled the building and was arrested in an adjacent field.

Students were allowed to go home early yesterday if they chose. The school canceled all after-school activities, including sports and band practices and a play performance, though tonight's basketball game between Garfield and O'Dea will be held as scheduled at O'Dea.

"It blows me away that we had this assembly, and less than an hour later we had this violent shooting. I can't even comprehend it," said Megan Tompkins, a 16-year-old junior.

Earlier, students had spent two hours in a nearly full gymnasium honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. with songs, poetry and dance. The featured speaker, who talked about the need to reduce violence, drew loud applause.

"It's very disheartening. It's very frustrating," said Garfield Principal Ammon McWashington. ". . . . One incident can have an adverse effect on all the good that goes on in school."

Although Garfield is the district's largest school, in the 1993-94 school year, it had the fewest number of criminal incidents: 48 in all categories. The largest number of incidents involved thefts; only four were reported to have involved weapons.

According to Graves, only three guns have been confiscated in Seattle schools this year - two at high schools and one at an elementary school. By contrast, 24 guns were confiscated throughout the 1993-94 school year and 17 the year before.

Although many unfamiliar with Seattle schools know the inner-city high school largely for its athletic success, Garfield's magnet programs in math and sciences have helped it develop as one of the city's top schools academically. Each year, Garfield produces more than its share of National Merit Scholars.

Donaldson, whose 16-year-old daughter attends Garfield, said she doesn't think the shooting requires such harsh measures as metal detectors. But she said school officials, police and parents have to make sure it doesn't happen again. Although some students were clearly shaken by the shooting - sobbing, huddling with friends - many said the incident didn't change their feelings about Garfield. Many stressed that yesterday's incident was not the norm.

Ben Neville, a 17-year-old junior toting a saxophone, stopped reporters shortly after the shooting to plead the case against portraying Garfield as violence-wracked.

"I don't know much about guns," he said. "I can say something about education and all the really good things going on here that nobody writes about. It scares me sometimes, but I'm not about to go to another school."

Seattle Times staff reporters Dave Birkland and Jim Simon contributed to this report.