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California and the West | Santee School Shootings

Campaign Sends Anti-Violence Message to Communities Marred by Rampages

Media: Public service announcements flood the airwaves in the wake of school shootings. They promote gun safety and encourage students to report threats.

March 12, 2001|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTEE, Calif. — Peggy Conlon is, as she puts it, "tragically timely."

Just hours after 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams allegedly killed two Santana High School classmates and wounded 13 others, anti-violence ads by Conlon's nonprofit were sharing the airwaves with breathless reports from news anchors.

Distributed by the New York City-based Advertising Council Inc. and broadcast free as a public service, the ads encouraged teenagers to report threats of violence--something that Williams' friends did not do--and urged parents to lock up their guns.

It was no coincidence. Advocates have learned to get such spots on the air after shootings because, they note grimly, that's when people are more likely to pay attention. Caught unprepared for earlier schoolyard shootings, today--right or wrong, depressing or not--they are ready with sophisticated campaigns to seize the opportunity when another student opens fire.

"One could say that we were eerily prescient about this," said John Calhoun, president and chief executive of the National Crime Prevention Council, which produced some of the ads. "But sadly, school shootings are out there. And we are now prepared for them."

The campaign is one piece of a now often used operation that rorolled out in the hours after the Santana High shooting: the attorney who slid a solicitation letter under the door of the Williams' apartment in Santee; the local school board member who used the event to make a political point; and, of course, the media, which came for the dramatic story.

Whether they are local or national, whether the motives are admirable or otherwise, these efforts are bound by a common thread of awkward opportunism. And they prompted backlash, as Santee--feeling exploited--turned on the machine.

Two days after the shooting, Santana High students returning to school for the first time shouted expletives at three vanloads of teenagers from Scottsdale, Ariz., who showed up to minister to students and steer them away from drugs.

"Time to go home," someone wrote in the dust on the back of a Fox TV truck, a message that was followed by another expletive.

And then, as darkness descended on a makeshift memorial in front of the school, a resident held up this hand-painted sign: HONK IF U WANT THE MEDIA 2 LEAVE. Word spread quickly and by the time reporters had lined up once again in front of the school for their evening news stand-ups, car after car streamed by with horns blaring.

Santee's mayor said the anger is understandable.

"We have lost control of our town," Mayor Randy Voepel said. "We went from a very secure and very happy town to utter chaos, all within a few days. We've gone from terror to shock to grief, and now we're angry. And I think the media has the burden to understand us. We don't have the burden to understand them."

Voepel said the turning point came when Gov. Gray Davis' wife, Sharon, a 1972 graduate of Santana High, met with students Tuesday.

"The kids ran up to her, and guess what happened? The media rushed in and elbowed crying children out of the way," Voepel said. "They cut through our kids like a knife through butter."

Voepel said he was stunned to realize how rote the response to the Santana High shooting was.

"This is routine for you," he said. "For you, this is another car wreck. But this is our car."

David Wright, an ABC News correspondent who covered the Santee shooting, said, "Anger and frustration is expected and natural--especially in the full glare of the camera lights.

"But it got especially ugly [Wednesday] night," he said of the honking incident. "The fact of the matter is, this is the way the nation mourns. And part of the way people try to understand a senseless act is by witnessing how a community is trying to cope."

More subtle than the TV trucks are the lawyers who look for business in the aftermath of a tragedy.

While families of victims have not said what offers they may be receiving, one local law firm wasted no time slipping a solicitation letter under the door of the apartment where Williams and his father live. Neither the teenager nor his father have been home since the shooting.

Even Josh Stevens, a 15-year-old with a surfer-dude haircut and dirt bike posters on his wall and bunny slippers, has a lawyer. As Williams' best friend in Santee, he has been blamed by some for failing to warn adults that there might be a shooting. His family, on the advice of friends, hired San Diego attorney James Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick said he was hired primarily to guard the family against media inquiries.

"We're erecting a barrier around them, to help them get some sense of normalcy in their lives, to help Josh become a high school freshman again," Fitzpatrick said. "This has started to take on a life of its own."

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