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A 17-year-old gunman shot a schoolmate twice in the torso outside a high school in Santa Rosa, California, on Tuesday morning and then walked calmly into class, where his teacher did not realise anything was amiss, police said.

"He pretty nonchalantly walked into class and was talking to friends," Capt. John Cregan of the Santa Rosa Police Department said in an interview. "The teacher had no idea he had been involved in anything. He hadn't been acting out or anything."

The 16-year-old victim, meanwhile, crawled into a friend's car and was driven to a hospital, where he was listed in stable condition Tuesday afternoon.

The shooting, at Ridgway High School, began as a several-minute-long argument between the two young men before 9am, Cregan said. The episode was captured by surveillance video, he said, adding that some students also witnessed it and that a number might have recorded the shooting on their phones.

The names of the suspect and the victim were not immediately released, but Cregan said that surveillance footage showed the shooter "standing basically next to the Ridgway High School sign in front of the school and shouting at the victim, who was standing in the street in front of the school".

"You see the verbal exchange start, and then the suspect produces the handgun and fires multiple rounds," Cregan said. "The victim then falls to the ground and kind of crawls and runs into another vehicle and leaves the area."

The motive for the shooting was not yet known.

Sitting in class

Cregan said police received a 911 call at 8.56am to report shots fired at the school. When they arrived, witnesses said the shooter had fled into the building. The captain said officers and a SWAT team began a "systematic search" of the building and soon found the young man sitting in class.

Police informed the teacher of the situation, and the teacher told them where the suspect was seated, Cregan said. A team of officers then entered the classroom and removed the young man.

Cregan said the suspect was being questioned Tuesday afternoon and would be charged with attempted murder.

After the shooting, the suspect hid the handgun used in the attack in a backpack and put it in a car that soon left the area, the captain said. He said police were continuing to look for the handgun and for the driver of that car Tuesday afternoon.

The search for the gunman led authorities to place Ridgway High School and two other schools - Santa Rosa High School and Santa Rosa Junior College - on lockdown, Cregan said. The lockdowns were lifted once the suspect was taken into custody.

Officials at Ridgway High School did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

Santa Rosa, a city of more than 170,000 people, is in Sonoma County, in Northern California.