STILLWATER — When a shot rang out in the hallway of Stillwater Junior High School, panic, screams and uncertainty followed.
Cade Poulos, 13, was dead. He pulled out a gun and shot himself in the head at 7:50 a.m. Wednesday in a crowded hallway, police said.
There was no suicide note, Stillwater police Capt. Randy Dickerson said. It remained unclear Wednesday night why the student took his own life.
As they recalled the events of the day, Poulos' peers struggled to make sense of the tragedy.
Joli Moffitt, 14, a ninth-grade student, was around the corner from Poulos when he shot himself. She was showing a piece of art to a teacher. That morning, some students were dressed like superheroes at the school, part of a week of events planned in honor of cancer awareness.
Moffitt heard a bang. She thought someone had slammed books on the ground.
“I heard that and then I go and look and I see his body on the floor,” Moffitt said, sitting on the porch of her home in Stillwater.
“And I see a puddle of blood around him.”
Chaos followed. A teacher screamed. Someone told her to run. Moffitt could only stand and stare at first, she said.
“I was just shocked at what I saw,” she said. “My friend, lying dead in the hallway.”
She at first thought someone else had killed Poulos, and that person might shoot at other students.
“I started running after I got myself back together,” she said. “I started running because I was scared someone was in the school going to shoot at other people.”
A school resource officer was in an adjacent hallway and heard the shot, Dickerson, said. The officer quickly found the student's body and locked down the school.
Students were ushered into classrooms for about 30 minutes. Teachers locked the doors and shut off the lights. Students inside were terrified, Moffitt said.
“I'm nervous, shaking. I cried a couple of times,” she said.
A police officer let the students out of the rooms at the school. The news reached the students, by rumor and on Facebook, that Poulos had killed himself. A school administrator and the police department confirmed that news publicly about midmorning. The news conference was held outside the district's administrative offices in the college town of roughly 46,000 about 65 miles northeast of Oklahoma City.
Upon hearing the news, Moffitt felt relief and sadness all at once.
“I was glad it wasn't anybody shooting, just to shoot somebody, but was sad that he killed himself,” Moffitt said.
From their classrooms, students were led to a gym and then onto buses that took them to the nearby Cimarron Plaza strip mall. An alert about the incident was sent via email and phone to all parents, said Ann Caine, superintendent of Stillwater Public Schools. Parents picked up students at the mall.
The ordeal was over for Moffitt by 10 a.m., she said, but she knows she'll struggle with what she saw Wednesday morning, the image of Poulos in the pool of blood continuing to play over in her mind.
A memorial page quickly sprung up on Facebook, where many were quick to point to bullying as a reason for Poulos' public suicide.
Caine said the district tracks instances of bullying and had recorded none for Poulos. Dickerson said it was too early in the investigation to point to bullying as a driving force in the boy's death.
“I'm not aware of any credibility to that — I can't say one way or another, obviously, but the detectives are still looking into it and that's one of the things we'll take into consideration,” Dickerson said.
Moffitt knew Poulos but the two weren't close, she said. She said he looked happy the day before as he walked by her table at lunch.
School counselors were available to students quickly after the tragedy, Caine said. The school will create a counseling plan, and has already received support along those lines from the Stillwater community, with offers of help from Oklahoma State University and The Oklahoma Department of Career and Technology Education. Classes and extracurricular activities are set to resume Thursday as normal, Caine said.
The junior high does not have metal detectors, Caine said. It's a subject that will be addressed.
“We're still in the midst of trying to wrap our minds around the tragedy and take care of our students and our staff that witnessed that or that just knew him. The metal detector question is something we'll talk about pretty quickly.”
Police are not releasing information on where Poulos got the gun he took to school, Dickerson said.
Community pulls together
On Facebook, people commenting on the memorial page penned tributes to Poulos and left notes of support to the family. The page had more than 5,000 “likes” less than 12 hours after the student's death.
A local church planned a service in Poulos' honor Wednesday evening.
A large crowd of friends and family gathered at a mobile home where Poulos' family lives in rural Stillwater, bringing gifts of food to the family. A man who turned away reporters returned to the crowd and offered hugs to grieving women sitting at a picnic table outside.