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SANTEE SCHOOL SHOOTINGS

A Community Fears for Its Reputation and Way of Life

Reaction: Reeling from shootings, Santee residents still emphasize their low crime rate, good schools and small-town life.

March 06, 2001|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ask anybody around town and they'll tell you: If artist Norman Rockwell came looking for the definitive American community of the new millennium, he wouldn't have to search much further than Santee.

Children are king in this San Diego County bedroom community of 60,000, where the median annual income is $50,000 and homes can be had for $275,000. This is a place that offers a family-oriented quality of life, including soccer leagues, Girl Scout troops and an old-fashioned brand of over-the-fence neighborliness that residents say is becoming extinct in the big city.

As they reeled from the news Monday that their beloved hometown had become scene to the nation's latest shooting rampage, Santee residents consoled themselves by pointing out that their community had the second-lowest crime rate in San Diego County.

Theirs is a town peopled by engineers, educators and other middle-income professionals, many of whom commute to work in San Diego and see Santee as a respite from the stress of the real world, they say.

In Santee, which incorporated in 1980, there is no conventional Main Street shopping drag. On weekends, people congregate at the Town Center off Mission Gorge Road, an outdoor mall that features a Wal-Mart and the Home Town Buffet, the town's most popular diner.

Chamber of Commerce President Warren Savage said: "It's just that kind of place--a Midwestern town in the heart of California."

As in any other small suburb in the shadow of a major metropolis like San Diego--located 20 miles away--Santee residents fear that runaway growth and overbuilding could soon crowd services and schools and rob them of their easy way of life.

Most recently, the community, which is predominantly white, has fretted over growing signs of racial intolerance among its youths, including a 1999 attack on a black Marine by five white men and the circulation of racist leaflets at Santee's two high schools. Santee is 85% white and the remainder is divided among Latinos, Asians and blacks.

Residents worry that Monday's shooting at Santana High that killed two and wounded 13 will tarnish their town's reputation.

"No matter what we say, this incident will taint Santee's name," said insurance agent Dan O'Brien, a resident for 23 years. "It never helps to have something like this happen. But I think people who live here know that this could have happened anywhere."

Councilman Jim Bartell, a father of three, winced when he heard about the shooting while on his way to work Monday.

"You'd never think this could happen in Santee, especially with our good schools and our low crime rate," he said. "It's every parent's worst nightmare. You read about these things and pray it doesn't happen to your kids. But it did."

Savage said he won't miss a step in promoting the community. When he pitches his city's merits to prospective new businesses, he will continue to mention that Santee's biggest employer is the local school district and that the town's youth center is packed on weekends--facts that he says lends the place a hometown feel.

He will continue to tell about Santee's active Rotary Club, which sponsors community college scholarships for 15 students each year.

And all this business of school shootings, racial intolerance and misguided students who have given the city a new nickname--Klantee--will take care of itself.

"No matter what happens, no matter what outsiders say, our citizens are going to rise above it and get on with our small-town way of life," Savage said. "Because that's the kind of community we are."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

School Profile

Santana High School

Santee, Calif.

Students: 1,900

Grades: 9-12

Credentialed staff: 84

Opened: Sept. 20, 1965

Nickname: Sultans

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Santee Profile

Incorporated: 1980

Population: 58,342

Median age: 33.5

Total city area:

16.6 sq. miles

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Housing: 65% is single-family units

Schools: 9 public elementary schools, 2 high schools, 1 adult vocational center

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Sources: Santee High School Web site, city of Santee Web site

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