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Editorial Notebook: Intolerance and School Violence

By Adam I. Arenson

On Monday, Santana High School was rocked by the sort of tragedy that has occurred with alarming frequency in the past few years. A ninth-grader, characterized as an outsider and somewhat fragile, followed through on his threats--he brought a gun to school and shot a dozen people, killing two classmates. Santee, Calif., is a 10-minute drive from my house, a place with good reservoirs in which to fish and around which to walk the dog. Unfortunately, it did not come as a surprise.

I do not mean to discount the depth of the horror this action has caused. Bryan Zuckor, 14, and Randy Gordon, 17, were killed in their public school Monday, and the loss for their families is immeasurable. The first lesson should be that any threats should be reported, as many warning signs went unheeded by students and adults in this case. The second is that of gun control--teens only have access to life-ending force because lax gun laws and careless parents make guns the weapon of choice. The stance of the National Rifle Association and of President George W. Bush on tightening gun restrictions is inexcusable, but that is another subject. In the face of mandatory sentencing for this 15-year-old as an adult, I am more concerned with the deeper problem of who or what is at fault. A year and a half after Columbine, the lessons of intolerance have not been learned in America's suburban schools.

"This can happen in any town in America if it can happen in Santee. We are America," Mayor Randy Voepel said Monday. Like much of eastern and northern San Diego County, Santee has an "all-American" feel in a narrow '50s sort of way: good high school football, cowboy boots, lots of trucks and lots of white people. (According to the 2000 census, fewer than 10,000 of the city's 58,342 residents are not white.) A ranching area turned bedroom community through modest white flight, Santee is a conservative haven where the sight of an old-time ice cream parlor is welcome but certain other sights are not. Overt racism, luckily, has gone out of style, but other types of intolerance have not.

Santana High School is in the Grossmont School District, whose contentious board of supervisors has faced criticism over their handling of racial tension and creationism in the past. The most recent outrage was the defeat of a school board member because he voted to add sexual orientation to the district's nondiscrimination policy. Ted Crooks, the school board president, barely survived a recall effort because of his vote.

At the June 1999 hearing, a junior at another high school testified, "I see firsthand what awful and hateful things students go through at school," and declared "It is a matter of safety, and no one should feel unsafe." In a room of 800 angry parents, who claimed the protection "would be promoting a homosexual agenda," the three board members were the ones who felt unsafe. After the vote, Crooks was handed the recall petition, already filled with signatures. He was nonplussed: "It comes with the Grossmont territory. It was not unexpected."

When the Littleton shootings happened and the sort of outsider nature of the shooters became clear--black clothes, quiet, picked on--I thought of my own high school. With athletes picking on the "goths" and the gay kids, racial tensions sometimes simmering beneath the surface, it was just the sort of place I could see such tragedy occurring. Now it has happened, right in my backyard. I am shocked and saddened, but not surprised. It is too early to know whether any of these tensions were a factor in these shootings--whether it was bullying or prejudice, or simply, horribly random. Yet schools have become places where students might feel uncomfortable about being themselves and unprotected by their teachers and campus police office--and these students, like anyone in America, have access to guns. Hence I do not feel disbelief.

Bush reacted to the shootings by calling them "a disgraceful act of cowardice," and said, "When America teaches our children right from wrong and teaches values that respect life in our country, we'll be better off." Cold-blooded murder is a heinous act, but I wonder if the cowardice is on the part of the school district and the community and not just some frightened, angry 15-year-old boy.

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