Cover Story

'How could this happen here?'

Another school shooting hit another seemingly All-American city last week, causing some to wonder: How long will we leave children to create their own morality without reference to God?

Issue: "California school shooting," March 17, 2001

in Santee, Calif.-At Santee Pioneer Little League Field, which sits off Happy Lane just shy of Magnolia Avenue, the Diamondbacks and Padres scrimmage under a wispy, blue California sky. The Diamondbacks, clad in black-sleeved jerseys, crouch in the field in the ready-position. Padres players and coaches holler for their man at bat. Diamondbacks pitcher Eric McKnight, 10, adjusts his cap and peers down the pike. He winds up and-zing!-streaks one across the plate. "Stri-iiike!" an umpire-dad booms with conviction. Eric cracks a small grin as his dad, a Diamondbacks coach, urges him on from the dugout and his mom cheers from atop sky-blue bleachers. But this day in the bleachers, cheers mix with sober talk. That's because it's March 5 and just seven hours earlier Santee, Calif., joined the sorority of cities rocked by a school shooting-this one the worst since Columbine. Roberta Wier, a Diamondbacks mom who is also a bookstore manager, wonders aloud how a father could leave his guns where his son could get at them. Others in the crowd can't understand how being teased could have driven 15-year-old Andrew Williams to gun down 15 people at Santana High School-which is on Magnolia just a little way north of the ballfields-killing two. "This is a family community-that's why we live here," Mrs. Wier says emphatically. "How could this happen here?" Her question has become a national riddle. It hangs over Paducah, Littleton, Jonesboro, and other American towns like a desperate and impotent question mark. But although reports of Andrew Williams's murderous spree shocked many Santee citizens, others were less surprised. "I wasn't surprised at all this happened at Santana," said Cindy Zabka, an optical assistant whose son James, 16, fled the hail of gunfire as his friend Trevor took a slug in the jaw. "The school confiscates cigarettes, but kids are coming to school with knives in their backpacks. Now I'm worried more kids are going to bring weapons to school to protect themselves." Gary Cass, senior pastor of West Hills Christian Fellowship and a member of the Grossmont Union High School District school board that encompasses Santana, echoed Mrs. Zabka's thoughts: "Am I surprised that kids are taking guns to school and shooting people? I wish I could say I was." Over the weekend preceding his deadly siege, friends say Andrew Williams talked so much about taking a gun to school that they frisked him before class on the Monday of the shooting. But he was known for pranks, and friends dismissed his threats as just another joke. For Austin Floyd, a 16-year-old Santana junior, the joke turned serious when a series of loud bangs erupted in a boys' restroom near the hallway where he and friends were hanging out between classes. "Austin was standing about five feet outside the bathroom where the first shots were fired," Austin's father, Marvin Floyd, told WORLD. "They heard what they thought was firecrackers-it turned out that was when [Andrew Williams] was shooting kids inside the bathroom. Then the shooter came out of the bathroom, and immediately got down on the ground and started firing north into the hallway." Witnesses say Andrew stopped to reload as many as four times, squeezing off 30 or more shots, smiling as he mowed down fellow students. He allegedly killed Bryan Zuckor, 14, and 17-year-old Randy Gordon; 11 other students and two adults-a special education student teacher and a campus security worker-were wounded. For hours after the incident, law enforcement and school officials turned a shopping mall across the street from the school into a command post. Outside a Round Table Pizza, a Santana faculty member waved a clipboard over the milling crowd of distraught students and adults: "Find your parents and sign out! I repeat ... find your parents and sign out!" Cell phones chirped at regular intervals. Sheriff's deputies in yellow emergency gear interviewed eyewitnesses in a crime-scene-tape corral. Bob McGlenn, a psychologist from a neighboring school, barked out a game plan to district colleagues. That evening, pastors from at least two dozen churches around San Diego County converged at Santee's Sonrise Community Church to pray with and offer counseling services to the community. Secular grief counselors from the school district, as well as other groups like the American Red Cross, also pitched in. Counseling sessions continued on Tuesday. Mark Neuhaus, senior pastor at Carlton Hills Lutheran Church, said secular counselors emphasized what behavioral changes and fallout parents could expect, while pastoral counseling focused on processing the tragedy emotionally and spiritually. By late morning, he said the number of counselors outnumbered those seeking solace. Also by late morning, a familiar assemblage had taken shape outside Santana High on Magnolia Avenue: the phalanx of satellite trucks that has on at least six occasions since 1997 transmitted to the world the details of a uniquely American crime-school-based murder. It's an issue that has provoked cries of "more" from pundits across the ideological spectrum: More character education. More money for children's mental health. More parental involvement. More gun control. But, on those counts, if a vote were to be taken of cities least likely to become the site of a school shooting, Santee would be a top finisher. California has some of the toughest gun laws in the nation. Santana High School addresses character issues in the form of group teaching on treating others respectfully. And, as Mrs. Wier said, Santee is a "family" community-recreationally and socially, at least. Neighbors generally know each other-and often everyone on the block. Little League is huge here: 1,500 kids play in three separate leagues that serve the town of just under 60,000. (Soccer, though a latecomer to Santee's rather patriotic populace, is also up-and-coming.) Twenty-two churches coexist within the town's 16.6-square-mile footprint. Families here hunt, fish, own horses, and drive RVs across the rocky foothills that surround the town toward gleaming desert dunes that lie to the east. Santee is also a conservative community. Mayor Randy Voepel is a Republican, as was his predecessor, Jack Dale. While the city of San Diego voted 49 to 45 percent for George W. Bush in 2000, citizens in Santee, which is part of San Diego County, cast nearly 60 percent of their ballots for Mr. Bush, and gave Al Gore just 37 percent. But all these hallmarks-family outings, church concentration, community, political conservatism-weren't enough to preempt the shooting. Mr. Cass believes that's because Santee's social and political topography doesn't inoculate this or any town from a deeper national plague: children left to create their own morality in the absence of teaching about God. Mr. Cass has three children who attend schools in the same district as Santana. While working in a community pro-life counseling program, he talked with high-schoolers, both from Santana and other area schools. He said many students at Santana responded to pro-life counselors with profanity and what he calls "a disrespect for human life." The minister believes the kids' attitudes are rooted in education policies that forbid teaching about God and that, by default, short-circuit attempts at teaching kids the difference between right and wrong. "Americans will say you can be a moral person apart from God," Mr. Cass said. "But you cannot discuss morality apart from your notion of who God is. Otherwise the conversation deteriorates into my opinion versus your opinion." Mr. Cass points out that God often disciplines us by giving us what we want, as He did when the Israelites insisted on having an earthly king. "We want to make our own rules, do our own thing, be the final arbiters of right and wrong," Mr. Cass said. "Now we're wondering, do we really want this? "Now we have dead children to grieve over."

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