School Violence Fears
ON A WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON this spring, a sophomore student in Mr. Carlisle’s sixth period biology class at Westmont High School in Campbell wrote on his lab table, “March 20 everyone will die.”
Several students saw him do it. His lab partners hovered around the same microscope on the table, and they listened to him as he laughed and bragged about his threat.
Sophomore John Foyle watched the student scrawl out the message. Foyle had grown up with him in the suburbs of San Jose’s west side and sat with him through a few years’ worth of Sunday school lessons in a small Campbell parish. The student’s personality always had been “not too quiet, but always joking,” Foyle said.
The day I met Foyle, he was wearing his baseball cap backwards and a baggy sweatshirt that read “ZERO” across his chest. He had a wisp of chin hair that he occasionally tugged on as he spoke. “I told him not to write it,” Foyle said, tug tug. “I told him, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you.'”
The student ignored Foyle’s requests, as well as those from others, and left the message for the next period of schoolmates. Sophomore Karystle Gomez took her seat and noticed the scrawling immediately. She had to look closely to see it, though. The writing was small and etched in pencil. Gomez told her teacher, a substitute filling in for Mr. Carlisle. “She [the substitute teacher] just said, ‘OK, thanks,'” Gomez recalled. “She didn’t do anything.”
The next time the class met, on the following Friday, Gomez arrived and noticed the message still hadn’t been removed. She was still afraid, she said. She told Mr. Carlisle, who had returned, and Mr. Carlisle waited until after class to notify administrators in the front office.
## ## A few minutes later, first year Principal Bob Serpa and the two deans of students entered the empty biology classroom. A second message, with the same promise, turned up on a lab table in the back of the classroom.
Serpa called the San Jose police to the aid the school’s investigation. Finding the student wouldn’t be easy. Throughout the day, 150 students used the classroom, and Mr. Carlisle’s relaxed lab atmosphere allowed bodies to roam freely. And Serpa and the cops couldn’t start their hunt until school resumed on Monday morning just 24 hours before doomsday.
Early Monday morning police detectives used Mr. Carlisle’s seating charts to question the first handful of students. Investigators returned the students to their classrooms and ordered them to keep mum on the investigation. Fat chance. By lunchtime, the rumored attack included hit lists, Uzis and pipe bombs.
Later in the day, a parent named Spike Burkhardt posted a message on Westmont’s Parent Teacher Student Association website. “I am very concerned about a report that a student wrote “on mar 20th Westmont will die” [sic]. I feel all parnets [sic] must be notified so they can decide for themselves whether risking the life of their children on the chance that this is just a hoax. I would not want to wake up on the 21st knowing that children died because the threat was not taken seriously enough. Westmont officals [sic] have confirmed that they will have extra security on campus tomorrow but if it is a real threat I cannot see how that could possibly help, will every backpack or locker in the school be checked????? I feel that i must do my best to let everyone know so that we as parents can make an informed decision.”
By 5:30pm Serpa’s office had filled up with worried parents, students and teachers. The phones rang one after the other. Serpa stayed to answer all the calls personally, as police continued the search. Finally, a 15 year old sophomore was arrested at his home and charged with making terrorist threats, a felony.
A few weeks later, I asked Mr. Carlisle, the biology teacher, if he was surprised when he learned which one of his students had turned out to be the alleged psycho.
“Oh yeah,” Carlisle said. “I would have picked 15 other students before I picked him.”
I strolled past the administration office at the main entrance, paused long enough to read the minutes from the latest Campbell Union School District’s board meeting, then moved on. I lapped the outdoors quad area a few times, exchanged nods with photography students looking for assignments, dudes on their way to the bathroom, and roaming baseball players who had worn their game jerseys for a lunchtime rally.
In the outdoor hallway, I stopped to read the “Hall of Fame” bulletin board filled with newspaper clippings about Westmont athletes. Their names were highlighted.
I visited the library and took a seat directly across from the librarian. I thumbed through the campus’s newspaper, The Shield. The Westmont threat had come just days after the shooting at Santana High School in Southern California where two students had been murdered by a classmate, and the op ed page of the The Shield dedicated three columns to school violence.
Under the headline, “School Shootings: Are they our fault?”, student Cana Marks wrote, “Perhaps surprising to some, I found much to laugh about from the initial reports on the school shooting at Santana High School. Channel 7 reporters said, ‘We don’t know why he did this. He was picked on at school, called a [fill in the blank]. What made me laugh was how people can see the cause of the problem and so blithely ignore it. and Westmont High.” Horner’s most valued moment in playing football, he said, was “when plastic hits plastic and makes the symphony of pain.” And the night Horner was crowned Homecoming King, he added, “I loved the feeling of the scepter in my hand. It felt like I ruled the world.”
When the lunch bell rang, single students drifted into the library, sat at tables by themselves and opened up books for studying. I returned to the quad and watched a spirit rally. As part of Spirit Week, the rally was meant to “introduce the students to each other and create kind of a community,” one adviser later told me.
I hugged a pole in the back of the quad area and stood next to a group of skinny boys who talked about computer games. The cliques in the quad were so easily definable they all but wore markers announcing their tribe: skaters to the right, Goths to the left, and the mainstream kids comfortably in between. Every few seconds, a sunken chested loner would shuffle past, wandering by as if he were looking for an airplane gate, along with a one way ticket off campus.
Up on the cement stage, hip hop music blared from low budget speakers. The student master of ceremonies introduced the baseball team, the volleyball team, the softball team and the track team. “As we announce every team, be sure to give them applause,” the MC shouted on top of the music. “They deserve it.” Only a handful of students stood in front of the stage. Most of them paid no attention.
Then there were the adults. They, too, stood in their own clusters. Just in front of me, a backpack’s toss away, three women stood with walkie talkies in their hands. They talked nonstop. A few steps away from them, a guy in sunglasses and a white “San Jose Police” polo shirt stood with his arms folded across his chest. He spent the lunch period socializing with the Dean of Students, Mike DiGrazia. For the entire break I didn’t see any of the adults engage in conversation with a student.
As the rally ended, a black cloud drifted over the quad, as if on cue from Hollywood. Rain looked possible. A gust of wind followed, spinning the quad into a darkened dust ‘n’ dirt blender. A huge rally poster got swept high into the air. The skinny boys talking about computer games covered their eyes and turned toward the brick wall. The mainstream kids pulled in close to each other. The jocks stayed up on stage. The music kept blaring.
PICKING OUT which student at this high school or any high school is going to come to school and fill the quad with lead is difficult to do; it’s like trying to find the dirty needle in a needle stack.
In 1999, after two school years’ worth of blood baths on school campuses Jonesboro, Arkansas: five dead, ten wounded; Edinboro, Pennsylvania: one dead; Fayetteville, Tennessee: one dead; Springfield, Oregon: two dead, nineteen wounded; Richmond, Virginia: two wounded; Conyers, Georgia: six wounded; Littleton, Colorado: fifteen dead, twenty eight wounded the California Board of Education released its mostly impotent “School Violence Prevention and Response Report,” a 148 page study that reads like a well at least we did something pile of papers.
Least surprising but most interesting, the report assumes soon to be killers can be tracked inside their school system before they commit their crimes. There are tell tale warning signs that teachers and administrators can tune in to if they care to, the report says. In the “Early Indicators of Violent Tendencies” chapter, researchers find that kids who lie excessively, set fires or are cruel to animals may turn violent. “These youth often have difficulty playing with others, and they may harbor and demonstrate intense resentment of siblings. Their self perception may vacillate between feelings of worthlessness and superiority.”
The report’s major findings and recommendations continually suggest the factors building up to a student’s violent rage are best found outside the school gates: the kids are latchkey kids; the kids are victims of abuse; the kids don’t have anything to do after school. The kids, in other words, are screwy before they get dropped off at the school.
None of the “School Violence Prevention and Response” report’s findings questioned whether the teachers or administrators the rulers of any campus community are responsible for creating a safe and dare I say compassion filled? environment. The closest the report comes to asking administrators to look inward to end high school massacres was to give students more doses of peer to peer counseling sessions. (Columbine High School offered peer to peer conflict resolution classes before Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold arrived.)
Yet ask any teacher or principal if he or she is responsible for creating a sanctuary and brace yourself for the icy stare that says, “You try doing this.”