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19-year-old former student kills two people at US high school, dies after gunfight

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Witnesses and local media described a scene of panicked students fleeing from Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St Louis, US, as a man carried a long gun on campus.

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ST LOUIS – A former student, 19, opened fire at a high school in St Louis, on Monday morning, killing a teenage girl and an adult woman before police shot and killed him, according to law enforcement officials.

Witnesses and local media described a scene of panicked students fleeing from Central Visual and Performing Arts High School as a man carried a long gun on campus.

Authorities identified the shooter as Orlando Harris, who graduated last year from the speciality school with about 400 students in the south-western corner of the city.

Police entered the school at 9.15am and got into a gunfight with Harris at 9.23am that lasted two minutes, interim St Louis police commissioner Michael Sack said.

Harris was taken to the hospital with seven others, where he was pronounced dead. A 61-year-old woman died in hospital and a 16-year-old girl died at the scene, of gunshot wounds, police said. The injuries of the surviving teens ranged from gunshot wounds to abrasions and a fractured ankle.

“It is terrible to think about. Here is a safe place where kids go to learn, to grow, to develop, and something like this happens. It is just heartbreaking,” Sack said.

St Louis Fire Department Chief Dennis Jenkerson said “everything else became secondary in the city” when the call came in. “The plan that was in place worked,” he said.

Doors in the school were locked, Sack said, and it was not immediately clear how the shooter was able to enter the building. Police offered no motive for the shooting or why Harris came to the school with a dozen 30-round magazines on him.

Harris had no prior criminal record, but officers are looking into “suspicions” that he dealt with mental illness. Sack did not provide information about the firearm.

At a vigil Monday night near the school, Dylan Fritt said he passed the body of another student on the floor as he evacuated from the school.

“I was there to learn. I was not there to hide in a corner,” he said.

Ashley Merideth, who said she was a special-education teacher at the school, recalled looking at her students’ faces and seeing their fear as they followed drill routines to lock the door, switch off the lights and huddle. “The gunshots were right outside my door,” she said.

There have been 160 homicides in St Louis so far this year, according to a report published on Monday by the police department, and firearms were disproportionately used. “It is very easy to get guns. I have said it before.” Sack said at a news conference on Friday evening.

Missouri laws allow open or concealed carrying of firearms without a permit or background check. The state has one of the highest gun death rates, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which called Missouri gun legislation “appallingly weak”.

As news of the shooting broke, St Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones tweeted: “Help us Jesus.” Cristina Garmendia, whose stepdaughter attends the school, said the girl texted the family group chat at 9.16am: “There is a school shooter at my school.”

Garmendia tried calling 911, worried that students inside the school hiding from the shooter would be unable to make phone calls. But she had to wait more than 10 minutes.

Her stepdaughter’s Advanced Placement US history teacher, a military veteran, had planned to show the students how to make a tourniquet in class on Monday, Garmendia said. They never got the chance.

Yurisky Velazquez Vera, a 16-year-old student at the Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, said in an interview with St Louis Public Radio that she hid in the back corner of a room and saw her teacher get shot.

“These things need to stop because what is going to happen to the future kids? What is going to happen to them?” she said.

“We deserve to go to school without having to worry that we are going to get shot.”

Taniya Gholston, another student, was in a school dance room when she heard two gunshots. Gholston told the St Louis Post-Dispatch that she made eye contact with the shooter but escaped because his gun jammed.

According to a tally kept by The Washington Post, there have been at least 33 school shootings this year.

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