Police ID woman accused of shooting at Gwinnett school bus

A witness (seated left) talks with Gwinnett County police after a shooting on Highland Gate Circle on Monday morning. According to police, a woman opened fire on a school bus as it was leaving a bus stop.

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A witness (seated left) talks with Gwinnett County police after a shooting on Highland Gate Circle on Monday morning. According to police, a woman opened fire on a school bus as it was leaving a bus stop.

Police have identified a woman who was arrested Monday after allegedly firing a dozen gunshots at a Gwinnett County school bus occupied by four elementary school students and their driver.

Celeste Michele Saunders, 57, of Suwanee, was taken into custody in the Gwinnett neighborhood where she lived and where the shooting took place, police spokeswoman Officer Hideshi Valle said in a news release. Saunders has been charged with four counts of first-degree cruelty to children, five counts of aggravated assault, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony and unauthorized discharge of a firearm near a public street.

According to police, Saunders opened fire on the bus as it was leaving a stop on Highland Gate Circle around 7:15 a.m. No children on board were injured, and they arrived safely at the school after the shooting, police and school district officials said.

For one woman who spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution but asked not to be identified, the 12 loud pops she heard Monday didn’t register as gunshots.

As she does most mornings, the Riverside Elementary School parent had just put her kindergartner on the school bus and returned to her home in the Highlands at Bridgegate subdivision, a quiet neighborhood across the street from the school and Settles Bridge Park. The pops must have been nearby construction, the mother surmised.

About 30 minutes later, a phone call from Riverside administrators sent the woman rushing to the school, past a growing cadre of Gwinnett police officers gathered on her street. In the school’s parking lot, she saw her child’s bus riddled with bullets, its front windshield shattered.

The bus driver, a 56-year-old woman from Sugar Hill, sustained minor injuries caused by shattered glass, but no one was shot, Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. William Wolfe said from the scene. No information was released on a possible motive.

When the shooting started and glass began to fly, the driver told her daughter to duck, the mother said. The child was seated in the second bench behind the driver.

“We are grateful for the awareness of our driver, the partnership, and the swift investigation of our school police and Gwinnett County police, who were able to identify the suspect and take them into custody this morning,” said Melissa Laramie, chief communications officer for Gwinnett County Public Schools. “Most importantly, we are so grateful the GCPS staff and children on the bus arrived safely at school.”

Saunders was taken into custody soon after police arrived in the neighborhood. She was stopped in a vehicle and detained without further incident, according to Wolfe.

“This is an isolated incident,” he said. “This isn’t a common occurrence here in Gwinnett County. But as to the exact motive, we are still waiting for detectives to show up to conduct interviews and make that determination.”

The mother of the kindergarten student recognized Saunders as a neighbor, she said. The school offered to send her daughter home Monday, but after some reassuring words, the mother said her 5-year-old decided to resume the school day.

The school district increased the presence of school police officers on campus Monday “to ensure all of our students, families and staff feel safe,” Laramie said in an emailed statement.

— Photographer Jenni Girtman contributed to this article.