Using Students as Metal Detectors: Tattling May Be the Only Way to Stop the Next Santee

Newsweek, March 19, 2001 | Go to article overview

Using Students as Metal Detectors: Tattling May Be the Only Way to Stop the Next Santee


Neil O'Grady laughed when he heard about it. "Andy talked for a while about getting a gun and bringing it to school to shoot people," said the Santana High School 15-year-old of his close friend, Charles Andrew Williams. "He even told me to stay home Monday, but I just sort of laughed, because I thought it was a joke. He likes to joke around a lot." Josh Stevens, another good friend, also dismissed the threats, which he believes Williams shared with "20 or 30 people." That in itself was reason not to worry, Stevens reasoned: "If he was serious, you wouldn't think he'd tell people."

Andy Williams, it seems, was the kind of kid no one took too seriously. Skinny and jug-eared, he was teased by the older teens at Woodglen Vista Park, where he would hang out to ride his skateboard and smoke pot. "We'd tell him to shut up and sit down, and he'd just do it," says Jessie Cunard, 18, a dropout from Santana himself. "People stole his shoes and skateboard and other stuff, and he just let them." Raised in small towns in the East, Williams was ill at ease in Santee, Calif., a suburb on the far fringes of San Diego, where he moved with his divorced father last summer. To his friends back in Brunswick, Md., where he lived until 1999, he would complain about the casual brutality of a teenage culture in which any display of vulnerability marked you as a "faggot." "He got a haircut and they beat him up," says Mary Neiderlander, whose daughter, Kathleen Seek, had a brief moment of celebrity as Williams's former girlfriend. But although school officials were still checking their records last week, Williams apparently didn't impress most adults as the kind of alienated loner who bore watching. "Even the week before the shooting, Andy was a great, loving and fun guy," says Ashley Petersen, a 14-year-old from the neighborhood. Which is why even the people he'd told about it were shocked on Monday when, according to police, Williams pulled out an eight-shot, .22-caliber handgun and began firing in a boys' bathroom, killing two students and wounding 13, including two adults.

What is amazing is that, almost two years after the appalling bloodbath of Columbine, no one thought to warn authorities. And it's not because the school was indifferent to the danger. Congress has all but given up on tougher gun-control laws, so Santana, like many schools, has taken matters into its own hands. Or, rather, put it in the hands of students, who are being asked to bear the brunt of responsibility for their own safety, on the theory that "students are the best metal detectors," in the words of school-board president Daniel McGeorge. The school offers peer counseling, conflict-resolution classes and seminars in tolerance. Each September, vice principals meet individually with each of the 1,900 students to urge them to come forward--anonymously, if they wish--with information about potential threats from classmates. …

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