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SANDY BANKS

The Suburb That Closed Its Heart to a Newcomer

March 11, 2001|SANDY BANKS

"A Community Fears for Its Reputation and Way of Life," read our headline over a story the day after the school shooting in Santee that described the town as a bucolic place, right out of a Norman Rockwell painting, where "children are king" and residents find a "respite from the stress of the real world."

I don't imagine Charles "Andy" Williams felt much like a king when he was being tormented by schoolmates--beaten up, his skateboards stolen, his shoes snatched from his feet, his apartment egged, his homework ripped apart and tossed in the trash.

I can't envision a "respite from stress" for a 15-year-old bullied constantly, then taunted by his friends for being too scared to stand up to the bullying.

Santee might be the town that news accounts portrayed: a suburban enclave of cul-de-sacs and tidy frontyards, of Little League and soccer games; a place where city folks move to escape.

If so, they must have brought their problems with them, these urban refugees. How else to explain the groups of kids--some as young as 12--like Andy's crowd, who hung out unsupervised for hours at the local park, getting drunk and smoking weed.

"This isn't supposed to happen in Santee," we hear townspeople say about the shooting, as if their fantasy of small-town intimacy is enough to protect them from reality. As if the image they are trying to sell--and we are desperate to buy--reflects more than our own need for the illusion of security.

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I have never been to Santee, had never even heard of it until gunfire erupted at Santana High School on Monday. Even San Diegans, a mere 20 miles away, consider it just one of many anonymous, working-class suburbs. So I can imagine the anguish of townspeople whose sudden national image is framed by bloodstains left by a homicidal teen.

But the partnership of intolerance and violence is nothing new, even in Santee.

Three years ago, a fight at a Santee party left a black soldier paralyzed from the neck down. Five young white men were sent to jail for beating Lance Cpl. Carlos Colbert nearly to death because of his race.

In November, a Santee man was charged with a hate crime after an attack on a black man and his sister, during which he allegedly referred to Santee by the nickname Klantee.

In January, after the appearance of swastikas and racist literature at Santana and another local high school, Mayor Randy Voepel appointed a local pastor to serve as human-relations advisor for the city of 58,000. At a community meeting on the problem, a black student who had recently moved to Santee from Japan, told of being bombarded by racial slurs on her way to school, in the hallways, even in class. "I feel more like a foreigner here than I did in Japan," she said.

I imagine Andy Williams felt ostracized in much the same way, not because of his race, but because he was different--small and pale and kind of goofy; a scrawny, weak-kneed stranger, out of place in a town that seems to have little tolerance for differences.

Perhaps arrogance is what we get when we try to live our lives inside a bubble of innocence; when insularity allows us to embrace those within our circle and shun those outside.

Santana High's dead and wounded are the "us," nice kids with bright futures. The senior captain of the track team who planned to join the Navy. And the sweet-faced 14-year-old whose mother had been so protective that she home-schooled him until this year.

The townspeople are the "us," as they fret about Santee's wounded image and complain that no one reported the new kid's threats.

And Andy Williams is the "them," the puny kid who fought back with a gun; the outsider whose anguish we didn't care about, or willed ourselves--until now--not to see.

It was heartbreaking to hear the horror of Santana High students, as they scrambled to safety while Andy fired round after round: kids such as the boy who first heard shots while he was on the phone with his mom, asking her to please bring him the lunch that he'd left at home. And the student who told a radio reporter, "I saw him shooting and . . . I ran and ran, and I made it to the Albertsons parking lot, and my mom finally came and got me." These are children accustomed to finding refuge in their homes, their schools, their families.

But there was no refuge for Andy once he arrived in Santee from the small Maryland town that he had called home. His friends there say he was popular, well-tended, well-loved. There, he was the "us"--the honor student who loved theater and sports, played board games with his dad, was known as a peacemaker who was not afraid to step into the middle of a fight and urge the combatants to calm down.

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