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Photograph by George Sakkestad

The Poison Pencil

What's worse than uttering the word 'gun' at an airport check-in? Writing the word 'die' on a desk in high school. Even if you're only kidding around.

By Justin Berton

ON A WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON this spring, a sophomore student in Mr. Carlisle's sixth-period biology class at Westmont High School in Campbell wrote on his lab table, "March 20 everyone will die."

Several students saw him do it. His lab partners hovered around the same microscope on the table, and they listened to him as he laughed and bragged about his threat.

Sophomore John Foyle watched the student scrawl out the message. Foyle had grown up with him in the suburbs of San Jose's west side and sat with him through a few years' worth of Sunday school lessons in a small Campbell parish. The student's personality always had been "not too quiet, but always joking," Foyle said.

The day I met Foyle, he was wearing his baseball cap backwards and a baggy sweatshirt that read "ZERO" across his chest. He had a wisp of chin hair that he occasionally tugged on as he spoke. "I told him not to write it," Foyle said, tug tug. "I told him, 'I wouldn't do that if I were you.'"

The student ignored Foyle's requests, as well as those from others, and left the message for the next period of schoolmates. Sophomore Karystle Gomez took her seat and noticed the scrawling immediately. She had to look closely to see it, though. The writing was small and etched in pencil. Gomez told her teacher, a substitute filling in for Mr. Carlisle. "She [the substitute teacher] just said, 'OK, thanks,'" Gomez recalled. "She didn't do anything."

The next time the class met, on the following Friday, Gomez arrived and noticed the message still hadn't been removed. She was still afraid, she said. She told Mr. Carlisle, who had returned, and Mr. Carlisle waited until after class to notify administrators in the front office.

A few minutes later, first-year Principal Bob Serpa and the two deans of students entered the empty biology classroom. A second message, with the same promise, turned up on a lab table in the back of the classroom.

Serpa called the San Jose police to the aid the school's investigation. Finding the student wouldn't be easy. Throughout the day, 150 students used the classroom, and Mr. Carlisle's relaxed lab atmosphere allowed bodies to roam freely. And Serpa and the cops couldn't start their hunt until school resumed on Monday morning--just 24 hours before doomsday.

Early Monday morning police detectives used Mr. Carlisle's seating charts to question the first handful of students. Investigators returned the students to their classrooms and ordered them to keep mum on the investigation. Fat chance. By lunchtime, the rumored attack included hit lists, Uzis and pipe bombs.

Later in the day, a parent named Spike Burkhardt posted a message on Westmont's Parent Teacher Student Association website. "I am very concerned about a report that a student wrote "on mar 20th Westmont will die" [sic]. I feel all parnets [sic] must be notified so they can decide for themselves whether risking the life of their children on the chance that this is just a hoax. I would not want to wake up on the 21st knowing that children died because the threat was not taken seriously enough. Westmont officals [sic] have confirmed that they will have extra security on campus tomorrow but if it is a real threat I cannot see how that could possibly help, will every backpack or locker in the school be checked????? I feel that i must do my best to let everyone know so that we as parents can make an informed decision."

By 5:30pm Serpa's office had filled up with worried parents, students and teachers. The phones rang one after the other. Serpa stayed to answer all the calls personally, as police continued the search. Finally, a 15-year-old sophomore was arrested at his home and charged with making terrorist threats, a felony.

A few weeks later, I asked Mr. Carlisle, the biology teacher, if he was surprised when he learned which one of his students had turned out to be the alleged psycho.

"Oh yeah," Carlisle said. "I would have picked 15 other students before I picked him."

Walking The Walk

EXACTLY ONE month after the Westmont threat and the administration's promises to create a secure and safe campus, I walked onto school grounds on a bright Wednesday afternoon just to see if anyone would stop me.

No one did.

I strolled past the administration office at the main entrance, paused long enough to read the minutes from the latest Campbell Union School District's board meeting, then moved on. I lapped the outdoors quad area a few times, exchanged nods with photography students looking for assignments, dudes on their way to the bathroom, and roaming baseball players who had worn their game jerseys for a lunchtime rally.

In the outdoor hallway, I stopped to read the "Hall of Fame" bulletin board filled with newspaper clippings about Westmont athletes. Their names were highlighted.

I visited the library and took a seat directly across from the librarian. I thumbed through the campus's newspaper, The Shield. The Westmont threat had come just days after the shooting at Santana High School in Southern California where two students had been murdered by a classmate, and the op-ed page of the The Shield dedicated three columns to school violence.

Under the headline, "School Shootings: Are they our fault?", student Cana Marks wrote, "Perhaps surprising to some, I found much to laugh about from the initial reports on the school shooting at Santana High School. Channel 7 reporters said, 'We don't know why he did this. He was picked on at school, called a [fill in the blank]. What made me laugh was how people can see the cause of the problem and so blithely ignore it. They even gave a detailed list of the main cause of the problem and then have the gall to say they don't know why this happened."

The Shield neglected to report the incident making news on its own campus that month, but news holes were filled by other regular features including the "Student of the Issue." In this issue, senior Dave Horner was honored as being "a fine upstanding citizen of the U.S. and Westmont High." Horner's most valued moment in playing football, he said, was "when plastic hits plastic and makes the symphony of pain." And the night Horner was crowned Homecoming King, he added, "I loved the feeling of the scepter in my hand. It felt like I ruled the world."

When the lunch bell rang, single students drifted into the library, sat at tables by themselves and opened up books for studying. I returned to the quad and watched a spirit rally. As part of Spirit Week, the rally was meant to "introduce the students to each other and create kind of a community," one adviser later told me.

I hugged a pole in the back of the quad area and stood next to a group of skinny boys who talked about computer games. The cliques in the quad were so easily definable they all but wore markers announcing their tribe: skaters to the right, Goths to the left, and the mainstream kids comfortably in between. Every few seconds, a sunken-chested loner would shuffle past, wandering by as if he were looking for an airplane gate, along with a one-way ticket off campus.

Up on the cement stage, hip-hop music blared from low-budget speakers. The student master of ceremonies introduced the baseball team, the volleyball team, the softball team and the track team. "As we announce every team, be sure to give them applause," the MC shouted on top of the music. "They deserve it." Only a handful of students stood in front of the stage. Most of them paid no attention.

Then there were the adults. They, too, stood in their own clusters. Just in front of me, a backpack's toss away, three women stood with walkie-talkies in their hands. They talked nonstop. A few steps away from them, a guy in sunglasses and a white "San Jose Police" polo shirt stood with his arms folded across his chest. He spent the lunch period socializing with the Dean of Students, Mike DiGrazia. For the entire break I didn't see any of the adults engage in conversation with a student.

As the rally ended, a black cloud drifted over the quad, as if on cue from Hollywood. Rain looked possible. A gust of wind followed, spinning the quad into a darkened dust 'n' dirt blender. A huge rally-poster got swept high into the air. The skinny boys talking about computer games covered their eyes and turned toward the brick wall. The mainstream kids pulled in close to each other. The jocks stayed up on stage. The music kept blaring.

John Foyle
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Try to Erase This: Sophomore John Foyle witnessed the writing on the desk. He says he knew it was a joke and urged the writer to erase it.

Predicting the Unpredictable

PICKING OUT which student at this high school--or any high school--is going to come to school and fill the quad with lead is difficult to do; it's like trying to find the dirty needle in a needle stack.

In 1999, after two school years' worth of blood baths on school campuses--Jonesboro, Arkansas: five dead, ten wounded; Edinboro, Pennsylvania: one dead; Fayetteville, Tennessee: one dead; Springfield, Oregon: two dead, nineteen wounded; Richmond, Virginia: two wounded; Conyers, Georgia: six wounded; Littleton, Colorado: fifteen dead, twenty-eight wounded--the California Board of Education released its mostly impotent "School Violence Prevention and Response Report," a 148-page study that reads like a well-at-least-we-did-something pile of papers.

Least surprising but most interesting, the report assumes soon-to-be killers can be tracked inside their school system before they commit their crimes. There are tell-tale warning signs that teachers and administrators can tune in to if they care to, the report says. In the "Early Indicators of Violent Tendencies" chapter, researchers find that kids who lie excessively, set fires or are cruel to animals may turn violent. "These youth often have difficulty playing with others, and they may harbor and demonstrate intense resentment of siblings. Their self-perception may vacillate between feelings of worthlessness and superiority."

The report's major findings and recommendations continually suggest the factors building up to a student's violent rage are best found outside the school gates: the kids are latchkey kids; the kids are victims of abuse; the kids don't have anything to do after school. The kids, in other words, are screwy before they get dropped off at the school.

None of the "School Violence Prevention and Response" report's findings questioned whether the teachers or administrators--the rulers of any campus community--are responsible for creating a safe--and dare I say compassion-filled?--environment. The closest the report comes to asking administrators to look inward to end high school massacres was to give students more doses of peer-to-peer counseling sessions. (Columbine High School offered peer-to-peer conflict resolution classes before Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold arrived.)

Yet ask any teacher or principal if he or she is responsible for creating a sanctuary and brace yourself for the icy stare that says, "You try doing this."

Terry Peluso is the Campbell Union High School District's Director of Student Assessment. He deals with the kids who get expelled or suspended. In a conversation about the Westmont incident he told me, "The most important lesson we need to learn is the toughest: We have to create, and constantly move toward, an environment where students feel comfortable talking to adults. Not just inside the classroom, but outside the classroom. Not just, 'Hey, I heard this," but real conversations. In a perfect world, heck, students would be having lunch with administrators and having conversations."

Peluso agreed that today's high school culture needed a little retooling--and the adults were responsible for setting the rules. I asked him if he was satisfied that the schools in his district, Westmont included, were creating that open, comfortable environment he spoke of. "Never. We're never going to be satisfied."

However, Peluso couldn't resist a but-not-in-our-schools promo for his district. "We're never satisfied, but I think our district is already well above average in doing that. I think we have a very good situation, but now we're making a conscious decision to do that. The students in our district participate a lot in activities. The administrators are out there on campus, moving around. Honestly," Peluso chuckled and lowered his voice, "we were already doing that without this goal in mind. We just wanted to make sure we were providing a high quality learning district."

The Association of School Psychologists estimated that 160,000 students stay home from school each day because of threats or bullying. I'm guessing one or two of those students are hiding somewhere inside the Westmont school boundaries and the boundaries of every high school in this county right now. About 25 of the last 37 high school shooters specifically cited being teased or picked on or made to feel "outside" the school mainstream, according to the National Center of Threats Assessment. The kids who want everyone to die are coming to school--and they're finding it a very hostile place, too.

Peluso's view of a harmonious campus culture is understandable. Certainly, Westmont is not a place where disputes are regularly settled with a gun. But there are consistent little barbs, remnants of an inequitable world, that remind the not-so-cool students just how not-so-cool they really are.

As I watched the Westmont Warrior athletes get their due praise at the spirit rally during lunchtime, I couldn't help wondering why the same honor wasn't bestowed on the students of the speech team, the debate team or the chess team. Why wasn't there a Hall of Fame for the Science Club? It's more than 50 years after the 1950s. We're living in a post-Mailer, post-Jungian, post-Bradshaw world.

Haven't high schools had enough time to become a more highly evolved kind of place?

Building
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Culture of Cruelty: The Association of School Psychologists estimates that 160,000 students stay home from school each day because of threats or bullying. Yet the California Board of Education's recently released "School Violence Prevention and Response Report" suggests that factors building up to a student's violent rage are found outside the school gates.

Who Are You?

AFTER THE LUNCH rally, I was hoping to talk to a few teachers and students and track down the student who made the big threat. I was starting to form an imaginary picture of him in my head: skinny, skaterish quiet, curly hair. He wore a black sweatshirt, hooded, walked home after school, and spent hours staring into the fuzzy glow of his computer monitor, deep into the night. His parents hid out in their own darkened rooms or, worse, fell asleep in front of the TV, crashed out on a La-Z-Boy, drunk.

I met teacher Richard Ferrie during his free period in his portable classroom where he was alone, thumbing through a novel, looking down the bottom of his reading glasses. Ferrie had taught English at Westmont since 1975 and had read tens of thousands of essays written by 15- and 16-year-old boys and girls--an expert on the voices of the school's souls, if there ever was one.

Ferrie himself had penned eight works of fiction, only two of them published. Instead of requiring George Orwell's Animal Farm, Ferrie offered his own book, Blossom River Drive, a quasi memoir placed in the McCarthy era. Ferrie had the air of a writer who hadn't been appreciated or discovered--I couldn't tell which--but he also reeked of the high school teacher who had seen it all, had been around the block, had watched the ebb and flow of students. He made the point early in our conversation: "Human nature doesn't change. Circumstances do. Our kids get battered around like pinballs in this society, from one trend to another. Do you remember what the kids were like when you went to high school? Well, these are the same ones. They fall into the same roles. They're still the same kids."

In the fall of 1985, by Ferrie's recollection, one of his students--"a bit of an outcast, a nerd, if you will"--wrote an essay that fantasized of perching himself on top of a building in the quad area, and shooting the cheerleaders onstage one by one. When Ferrie read the work he was terrified. "It was a cry for help, certainly." But Ferrie didn't bring the essay to the school's administration. "It was a much different climate then," he says, shaking his head. The student graduated, entered the military and, from what Ferrie heard, was discharged for mental health reasons.

Today, if a student wrote an apocalyptic essay in Ferrie's class, he's not sure if he would tell Principal Serpa or not, although he'd certainly give the matter a lot of thought. "I'd be reluctant not to allow them their freedom to write fiction," he said. "It's a freedom that I would give myself and I'd be very reluctant not to give them the same. I realize they are high school students, but..." and then his voice trails off, troubled by the thought.

Ferrie aired a familiar take on his kids, one that I was becoming well acquainted with each time I spoke to teachers and administrators at Westmont. "So many of my students are from single-parent households and their sense of direction isn't as sure as it might be," Ferrie told me. "Emotion is so big to kids, they carry around these"--here Ferrie raised both hands above his head--"big emotional bubbles, that they can be hurt so easily. They are so sensitive."

Teachers stayed consistent in their belief that the outside world was so poisoned that homework assignments and a few tests were hardly a worthy antidote. Crumbs for school supplies, multimedia attention spans, bad parents--all of it was too much to break through, I was told over and over. Ferrie suggested that even rap music--and he pointed out that he was a rock & roll baby so he "can't blame the music"--had helped confuse the kids today. "I don't want to blame rap music because there's just as many kids who get stimulated one way or the other; some use it to be artistic, other's don't. But if you put a little extra chili in the pot, then the pot gets hotter. And rap has done that."

Despite the toxic ingredients, Ferrie's also seen some good in his students' most recent essays. He's noticed an exciting shift in the tone of writing from that of decades past. His students are now writing in layers of first-person self-analysis, a style made famous most recently by the bestselling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. Ferrie says the heavy analytical style is beginning to penetrate the teenage writers of this generation and it's giving him hope that the tone--one that forces self-reflection at every turn and thus an understanding of one's place in the world, perhaps--will ease his students.

When I asked him if he would teach Eggers' work in the future, Ferrie looked at me as if I had suggested he pass out Hustler. "Oh, yeah," he said, whipping his head back to laugh. "With all those F words?"

"In public schools you kowtow to the parents," Ferrie said. "Which is always the most conservative element in the community. So if they're afraid of something, you get rid of it."

Ferrie didn't know the threat-making student and hadn't even heard his name before the incident.

"In 30 years, I've seen everything written on desks, assignments, papers, notes, you name it," Ferrie said. "Depending on what mood I'm in and who the student is, and what the circumstances are, I deal with it. But I'll tell you this: In other eras, what he wrote would have gone unnoticed, erased, forgotten."

Richard Ferrie
Photograph by George Sakkestad

Word to the Wise: Westmont English teacher Richard Ferrie says that in 26 years of reading student writing, he has seen it all. "In other eras," he says of the fateful message scrawled on the desktop, "what he wrote would have gone unnoticed, erased, forgotten."

Finding The Scribbler

ON THE afternoon of March 20, Principal Bob Serpa couldn't ignore the writing on the desk any longer.

"It was written fairly small and it was definitely hard to read," Serpa told me. "It was my feeling at the time, and the feeling of the deans, that this was intended to scare the person who sat down in this desk, not a whole lot of people.

"In my opinion, if you wanted to get the attention of a lot of people, you'd write something like this on a wall, where people can see it."

Even though Serpa's gut feeling told him the message was a "cruel hoax," the fateful words, by now, had lifted off the biology desk, and had spread into the homes. Now, Serpa wasn't just looking for a student with a graffiti problem; he had a community to calm.

In response to parent Burkhardt's email on the PTSA website, Serpa was swift. He promised a beefed-up security force on campus, then wrote, "Please be assured that at Westmont we take our responsibility of protecting our students and staff very seriously. We urge you to talk with your children and to help them discuss their fears. Your modeling of calm, reasonable caution will be a great help. If you have concrete information that would lead to the identity of the persons responsible for this threat, please contact Westmont."

At 8:30pm, after a full day of student interrogations, police officers went to a West Valley home and arrested a 15-year-old for making terrorist threats. Serpa spoke with the student and his parents that night.

"He admitted that he did it and he told us that he was joking," Serpa said. "He was remorseful."

There are three types of expulsion, each of them hinging on the seriousness of the crime. The first, for the least serious crimes, leaves it to Serpa's discretion to recommend expulsion to the school board. In the second level, for the more serious crimes, Serpa must recommend expulsion and then send it to the board. And with the third type, such as a stabbing, Serpa and the board must, by law, expel the student.

The student's terrorist threats fell within the first rung of expulsion: it was Principal Serpa's call entirely. Serpa argued for the student's expulsion before the board in a closed meeting a few weeks ago. He says the parents, there to defend their son, actually agreed with the principal's position and thought it was better if their son didn't return to Westmont. Ever.

Serpa was pleased with his decision to go for the expulsion. "We can't be held hostage by a student or a group of students who write something on a bathroom wall just because they want to get a day off school," Serpa said.

I asked him if this was his attempt to send a message.

"Yes. Yes it was."

Scared Silly

EVERY STUDENT I talked to described Gary M. as a bit of a clown, but a kind-hearted one. "Gary was always joking," says student Jason Walton, who was also a witness in the biology class. "He said, 'Watch, I'll get us a day off school.' But it was just a joke."

Gary was not a shy, nerdy, withdrawn kid; he played on the football team his freshman year. He had plenty of friends. He didn't get picked on at school. He had average grades, and had no discipline problems, Serpa said. (Metro is not repoting Gary's full name because he is a minor.) There were no guns removed from his home, no pipe bombs to defuse, no hate-filled webpages to shut down. He didn't fit the mold, the stereotype.

He declined, through his mother, to talk to Metro. His mother says he is sorry for his stunt but that he never meant harm. "He chose the wrong time to make the joke," she said.

Gary's mom says when the police interviewed him in the living room, they repeatedly asked Gary to tell the truth with the promise that "nothing bad would happen." When he finally admitted he wrote the message, they read him his Miranda rights. "They tricked him," she says. "And I'm still mad about that one." She also says a district administrator blamed Gary for costing the school $23,000 in ADA money when 650 students skipped school March 20. "That's the real reason he got expelled," she said.

Gary's grandmother was a school-teacher and, for a brief time, so was his mother. Now that he's been expelled, he visits an independent study school one hour a week to pick up homework assignments. "That's his entire interaction with his peers," his mother says. "One hour a week." Principal Serpa says if Gary is allowed back into the district next year, he won't attend Westmont.

Since Gary's expulsion, a few students in his old biology class sent around a petition to get him returned to the school. One student who signed it commented, "Gary's a good guy. He deserved better." The students collected about 20 signatures but never delivered it to Serpa's office.

During our 30-minute phone conversation, his mother repeated her son's remorse; her gravelly voice wavered high and low, and she indicated her amazement, and confusion, at the whole incident. She philosophized on the subject of youth violence, blaming adult marketeers for purposely aiming violent video games, movies and even hipster clothing directly at teenagers. She offered her own take on the Westmont incident and wondered if there wasn't another person responsible for the community's fear.

"The thing that made this whole thing explode?" she asked. "It wasn't Gary's words. And it wasn't the school's response. It was that website (PTSA). They can get on there on say any hysterical thing they want--and it was an adult who started that. Their kid came home from school and they got on the website, and pretty soon, there was a hit list, and 'All the cheerleaders with blonde hair were going to get it.' If that element hadn't existed, this whole thing wouldn't have happened. It was those words that had a very serious influence on where this thing went. Whoever that adult is carries a lot of the responsibility for this--and I don't see that person stepping forward and taking responsibility. And shame on them!"

She took a breath. "It reminds me of a bunch of schoolgirls and the Salem witch trials."

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From the May 24-30, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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