NORMAL — A 14-year-old Normal Community High School student brought a loaded handgun to school Friday morning, fired multiple shots into the ceiling of a classroom and briefly detained several classmates before being tackled and disarmed by a teacher and students.
“This had the potential to have a very
tragic outcome,” said
Normal Police Chief Rick Bleichner.
There were no injuries in the incident that occurred about 8 a.m., forcing an immediate lockdown that lasted most of the day. The freshman was in police custody and was being questioned Friday afternoon. Formal charges are pending; a motive is still unclear, Bleichner said at an afternoon news conference held while students were still leaving the school with their parents.
“Fortunately, we have prepared for situations like this and all of our students and staff members are safe,” said McLean County Unit 5 Superintendent Gary Niehaus. “As a superintendent, today is a day you never want to happen.”
Parent Mike Egenes called the teacher, Derrick Schonauer, a hero. Egenes’ daughter was in the first-hour health class when the shots were fired.
“The kids were resilient, but he saved my kid and about 28 others in that room,” Egenes said. “I don’t know what he saw or when he saw it, but when he found the opportunity, he took action and I am so grateful to know that he would put himself on the line like that to save those kids. He’s a first-year teacher and this is his 12th day on the job. In my eyes, he ranks up there with those passengers on Flight 93 on 9/11. He’s a hero.”
Egenes, who until February was sports editor at The Pantagraph, also thanked Schonauer when he saw him while waiting to pick up his daughter.
“I hugged the man,” said Egenes. “My wife hugged him twice. But it sure was great having lunch with my daughter today.”
Schonauer, of Lincoln, is a graduate of Illinois State University and was the last teacher hired this year at NCHS, said Unit 5 spokeswoman Dayna Brown. He could not be reached Friday.
“He told me he loves the students and he would do anything for them,” Nicki Green, pastor of involvement at Eastview Christian Church, said of Schonauer. She met her fellow Lincoln native when the students and staff of NCHS were evacuated to her church.
One student witness said the incident began when the suspect came to the front of the classroom toward the end of class and pulled a gun from a backpack. Schonauer initially thought it was fake, but then he saw a bullet in it, Green said.
The boy reportedly told the class it was time for him to share his own story, Green said.
When some students moved to comfort a girl who was crying and especially upset, some of the students were able to slip out, Green said. That was when the shots were fired, apparently.
The boy also had the students line up against a wall and collected their cellphones, Green said.
Bleichner confirmed that some students were able to escape the classroom after the student displayed the gun, but he did not allow others to leave. Bleichner would not discuss specifics on how some students escaped, or how the gunman detained the others. Several students in the classroom who witnessed the event were later questioned by police.
After the shots were fired, the suspect at one point put the gun down, which was when Schonauer acted. He and another student subdued the shooter while another student put the gun on a desk, Green said.
The handgun was the only weapon displayed, said Bleichner, who declined comment on the possibility that the student had other weapons.
Green said she introduced Schonauer to people at the church as a hero. “He said, ‘No, I’m not. I didn’t do anything that someone else wouldn’t do.’” she said.
Bleichner said officers were sent to the school after receiving a report of an individual with a gun. As officers were en route, the dispatch center received multiple calls that shots had been fired in a classroom and the school was flooded with police from NPD, the Bloomington Police Department, Mclean County Sheriff’s Department, Illinois State Police and Illinois State University Police.
“Officers went into the classroom where a 14-year-old male juvenile was being detained by Unit 5 staff,” Bleichner said. “He was taken into custody at that time.”
Bleichner said the student did not appear to have a target and the gun was never aimed at any students or staff members.
“I don’t have an exact number of how many shots were fired,” he said. “The information that was shared with me was that shots were fired, but not at anybody. The (teacher) looked for an opportunity which he felt was a reasonable time to intervene. He then gauged that and was successful in tackling this person and detaining him until other people could come, and the police could get there and take him into custody.”
The school, with an enrollment of 1,830, was immediately placed on lockdown. Students were allowed to leave their classrooms about an hour later and were evacuated to nearby Eastview Christian Church where they stayed for several hours before their parents were allowed to pick them up and take them home if their parents signed them out. Others were transported home by bus at 2:30 p.m.
Students were allowed to return to the school between 4 and 5 p.m. to retrieve their backpacks and other belongings left behind when they were sent to the church. Students unable to return to the school were told they could get their items Monday morning.
Word of what happened reached parents quickly through social media outlets and students using their cellphones.
“My son texted me or I would have lost it,” said one parent, Laura McBride, whose son is a NCHS sophomore.
Another, Alicia Schwerin, said she heard about what happened from a neighbor and then received notification from the district’s alert system. She relaxed somewhat after receiving a text from her daughter.
“I was panicked for the students and staff,” she said.
Roger Miller contributed to this report.