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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

High School Frets About Taint of Troubled Alumnus

February 27, 2001|ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tiny Concord High School has a reputation as a nurturing place, a highly personalized learning environment with no more than the usual Westside sprinkling of Hollywood kids, sport utility vehicles and bottled water.

On Monday, the Santa Monica private school was rocked by a seismic wave of notoriety--as the alma mater of David Attias, the 18-year-old accused of driving his black Saab into five people near UC Santa Barbara.

And Concord director Susan Packer Davis found herself standing before a troubled senior English class, struggling to make sense of the incomprehensible actions of a young man whom some of the 102 students had considered a friend.

"They were noticeably upset," Davis said. "We just talked about how you can't explain something like this, and where psychosis comes from. I hate that the crazy act of one person makes them have to deal with this. They're just kids."

Later, out of her students' view, Davis fended off a painful hammering of media scrutiny, as if Concord--like Monica Lewinsky's high school, or even her entire ZIP Code during the Clinton scandal--was somehow a co-conspirator.

"I've had to answer questions that are completely bizarre to me," Davis lamented. "The school has nothing to do with what he did. These are deep-seated psychological problems.

"I understand people are desperate to understand an event like this, but it's not something that can be easily understood," she said. "This is not a school for screwed-up kids."

Davis said she has told reporters over and over that Attias gave no clue while he was at the school that he was that kind of kid.

"He was a nondescript student," she said. "Some people are standouts. They distinguish themselves. He was just a good student, kind of a normal guy."

Authorities charged Attias on Monday with four counts of murder, saying he intentionally steered into a crowd of people Friday night.

That was difficult to fathom for one of Attias' classmates, Alison Brenner, who said she had known him casually, occasionally going shopping or to dinner with him.

"I was so upset yesterday when one of my former physics teachers called me and told me the news. I was in shock. You know how you hear about cases where people appear very passive--the quiet ones--and then one day they blow up, go off and kill people? David's not like that. He's not an evil person."

Nor was he unusual at the school. Yes, he was the son of Hollywood royalty--but so were a number of kids at a school where marquee stars regularly schlepped in for parent-teacher conferences and graduation.

He was wealthy--but at a school where the annual tuition is $16,000 (18% are on scholarship), that was common, too.

But the school itself, on Wislhire Boulevard in Santa Monica, is uncommon. Located in a two-story gray office building with an H & R Block office nestled between some classrooms, it has a modest sign that is easy to miss.

Brenner, a freshman at USC who had graduated with Attias, now worries the tragedy will stain her high school's reputation.

"Way before the David thing, kids at other private schools would be like, 'Isn't that a school for screwed-up kids?' " Brenner said. "It gets a lot of attention because some of their parents are extremely wealthy and extremely famous.

"Some of the kids have not had such kosher histories," she said. "Some had gotten kicked out [of other schools] because of drug problems. Some had gotten kicked out because of grades. But some are very gifted. There was one that was really brilliant."

An array of students past and present flash frozen smiles from school photographs, their bios giving a small taste of the pressures faced by adolescents who grow up in the cauterizing glare of Hollywood.

There's Jessica Biel, who appeared in the Peter Fonda movie "Ulee's Gold," and juggled acting on "7th Heaven" as a Concord correspondence student. There's Kabria Anderson, a Gates Millennium Scholar whose work was already published in the National Library of Poetry by the time she graduated with Attias. There's Max Comess, who scored a perfect 1600 on his SAT--in his junior year.

There are students at Concord taking third-year Greek and Japanese, and Advanced Placement Latin, said teacher Linda Civitello--in classes as small as one student.

"There's no place to hide in a class this small," said Civitello, who teaches fiction, film and history. "They come in with horror stories about busywork at other schools. When they get to Concord, we expect them to achieve and they do--and sometimes no one's ever asked them." Parents who send children to Concord say they are looking for that kind of personal attention.

Michelle Brenner was concerned about the lasting impact the death of her husband was having on her daughter Alison, who faced moving--and a new school--at the start of 11th grade.

"I was very concerned," she said. "Part of the progress she made moving through her period of grief can be attributed partly to [Concord]. It's a wonderful place to be. There were other children who needed new starts. Now my daughter really feels she can do anything she wants to.

"I would hate to see the school get a bum rap for this troubled man's unfortunate choice."

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