San Diego Shooting

March 6, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Joining me now to discuss the shootings are Paul Pfingst, district attorney for San Diego county; Marc Norman, a clinical psychologist for the Red Cross, who is there helping to counsel students and families; and Dr. Joan Kinlan, child and adolescent psychiatrist and former head of the psychiatry unit for incarcerated children in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Pfingst, are we any closer today to knowing more about how this came about than we were yesterday?

PAUL PFINGST: The answer is no. I think all of us, all parents, everybody in San Diego and your viewers, would like to have a simple explanation that explains this: A cause and effect — something caused this shooter to shoot. I don’t think it’s going to come out that way. I don’t think there’s going to be a simple answer. I don’t think there’s going to be a single cause. And as the case develops over time and people hear the evidence in the case, they may be no closer to an answer six months from now than we are today.

GWEN IFILL: Charles Andrew Williams is 15 years old, but is being charged as an adult in this case under a special proposition that was passed in California last year. Can you explain that for us?

PAUL PFINGST: Yes. Last year the voters of California passed Proposition 21. It was to reform the juvenile justice system and essentially provided that there were three ways for juveniles to be tried as adults in California. One is a mandatory requirement for certain types of the most serious crimes. The second is an election by a district attorney, and the third is a judge and a district attorney. This falls into the first category. It is required under California law that this case go directly to adult court.

GWEN IFILL: There had been also an anti-violence program, safe schools program in California schools.


GWEN IFILL: Was this in place at Santana High School?

PAUL PFINGST: Indeed it was. Santana High School took the safety very seriously. There were school counselors on site and they had a very active school safety program. So this was not a case — and this may not be comforting to people who are watching this — but this was not a case where school safety was overlooked. And it was not a case where the administration was indifferent to it. What we’ve been able to learn so far is that it was an aggressive program to try to make sure that the children who were dropped off at school everyday were safe. That’s good and it’s bad, because one wonders if there was an aggressive program here how many other schools have aggressive programs where they feel a sense of safety that may not be justified by the events in San Diego and Santee yesterday.

GWEN IFILL: Marc Norman you spent your day today talking to students and their families. What are they telling you? What are you hearing?

MARC NORMAN: Well, there’s a wide range of emotions that people are experiencing at this time. Right now there’s still a lot of shock that this event is very surreal to many people at this point. And other feelings that are coming out are a tremendous amount of anger for some people. That’s a very prevalent emotion that’s coming out right now. Another issue that’s coming out right now is confusion. To put sense and to put meaning on why this happened. So there’s a variety of different kinds of experiences that people are experiencing at this time — both the kids and the adults that have been involved with this situation.

GWEN IFILL: One of the great puzzles in this is that so many students said, as you heard in the earlier taped piece, that they had heard Charles Andrew Williams make these threats but had not thought to report them. Is that a special case of concern?

MARC NORMAN: It’s not unusual. There’s often times where adolescents will say something in a joking way or not serious about something, but we all need to be very concerned when we hear intentions or thoughts of individuals wanting to harm themselves or harm other people. And there’s certainly some types of behavior patterns that we especially want to be concerned about and I’m sure will be investigated in a case like this where there have been prior acts of harm toward other people or to property, those types of things.

So we do want to be concerned and we do want to address these types of issues when we do hear about them to school authorities or to community services, to religious leaders, to those who are very active in trying to identify adolescents or even adults that are having problems.

GWEN IFILL: Dr. Kinlan, is that not unusual that students would hear these sorts of threats from their peers and not pass it on?

JOAN KINLAN: Gwen, at this point in time, many students tend to pass them on because we have had a plethora in the last few years of these violent incidents. As has been reported, there are a number of threats that need to be reported, whether there’s a threat to hurt others, a threat to hurt yourself, a threat to run away or to hurt property. It’s critical that parents be called, come to the principal’s office and discuss it with the kid. Sometimes it’s just attention. But they all need to be taken seriously. If the student does not respond positively or won’t talk or seems to be belligerent, it would be critical then to refer the child to a trained mental health professional to further understand why is this youth making this threat?

GWEN IFILL: What are the warning signs for this kind of behavior — or are there any reliable warning signs?

JOAN KINLAN: Well, one of the things is certainly is the threats. But, Gwen, this is such a rare incident that it’s really very difficult to predict. We certainly know also if kids have learning problems, if they’ve diagnosed neurological difficulties, if they’ve been in trouble before, if they’ve been depressed that they are certainly at a higher risk of following through on some of these threats.

GWEN IFILL: When we hear about these kinds of episodes, obviously it rivets our attention. How does that square with the statistics that show that school violence or youth violence is at its lowest point in a couple decades?

JOAN KINLAN: It’s at its lowest point. However, Gwen, in our country, the United States, we have the highest degree of violence anyplace in the civilized world. And of all of the crimes that we have, 10 percent are committed by youth under 18. And so we have to be especially concerned that it could be happening and it’s a danger.

GWEN IFILL: These shootings were apparently random. Should that be reassuring or should that be even scarier?

JOAN KINLAN: In some ways it’s always scary when it happens. We do have to remember it’s a rare random event but still one of great concern. What is of even greater concern is the prevalence of violence within our society, the use of guns and the need for parents to really be there for their kids, to tell their child every day that they love them, for schools to be there — to really be there with small classes to identify kids who have problems early on. We need to have programs like the bully proofing programs that are going on throughout the country.

GWEN IFILL: Bully proofing?

JOAN KINLAN: Bully proofing. That started in Massachusetts. Now it’s in Miami/Dade and it’s running throughout the country. You start at early ages and you teach kids not to be bullies. You help kids relate to each other in a caring, considerate fashion. As kids move on to high school, it’s critical that we challenge them; we challenge them academically; we challenge them spiritually; we challenge them socially; we challenge them to do their best in everything. We challenge them to help others. That will be useful.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Pfingst, does the apparently random nature of these shootings make your job harder?

PAUL PFINGST: No, it doesn’t. I don’t think it really affects the job. It’s always more difficult to prove a motive with random acts rather than dedicated acts. This is not a case where our job is harder or easier. There’s a complication to this case that you pointed out so far that makes it troubling that we’re pursuing now. And that involves the extent to which peers knew and some adults knew that this young man was… the shooter was discussing this act before it happened. We’ll be following that for the next couple of weeks because I’m a parent, I have two daughters in elementary school, and I know parents watching this will want to know, could this have been avoided? Should a prompt report have been made? Could an intervention have been accomplished? And that’s part of the investigation we’re doing now.

GWEN IFILL: Isn’t that part… doesn’t the fact that these students who knew of these threats that they didn’t pass on this information, doesn’t that make you think that maybe these anti-violence programs have not been working as effectively as you thought?

PAUL PFINGST: Not necessarily. The number one cause of death among teenagers in the United States is automobile accidents. The number two surprisingly enough is suicide. Homicide is number three. And for homicides, if we take a look at the statistics, which give us scant comfort today, one is safer in school than in the home, in a car, at a beach, at a park. And that’s just a statistic today. I said it doesn’t comfort us, but it gives a sense of perspective. Schools across the country are safe generally. A day like this in Santee makes all of us in San Diego and those people watching wonder, is there more that we can do? Anti-violence programs are a part of it. We have those in San Diego. And there are other parts of it too about campus security, safety and we’ll be re-evaluating those — as we go forward with the investigation, the sheriff and I are working very closely to make sure that our school campuses are safe. And if I can tell you the school staff have responded in a positive way about this, and we have our superintendents and our principals across the county trying to learn from this experience to see if there’s something that they can do. And I think that’s happening nationally again.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Norman as you talk to these families and talk to these students, do you sense there’s greater concern about the notion, (a), that the information was not passed on about the threats, and (b), that it was random than it would be if, as we heard in Columbine, where the students kept it to themselves and went in with a focused idea of who they were going to get?

MARC NORMAN: Certainly there’s some concern about that. I have heard some concern with parents — Could this have been avoided? And certainly there’s not enough information at this time — or at least it hasn’t been released at this time about how much information was known and how we can prevent such things from happening. It’s certainly something that we want to address and want to be able to address and provide education. What are some of the signs? What are some of the concerns that we should have when we see certain types of behaviors or when we hear certain types of things? And so education at this point is also a very key concern that we want to be able to share with people.

GWEN IFILL: What about weapons screening? There were no metal detectors at this school? That’s for you, Mr. Norman.

MARC NORMAN: With weapons it’s actually… I’m part of the American Red Cross. So we’re dealing with disasters and those types of policy types of issues really need to come from people like Mr. Pfingst with the school boards themselves. As part of the Red Cross we don’t necessarily intervene with those types of issues.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me turn the question then to Mr. Pfingst. The American Bar Association has said that zero tolerance programs aren’t necessarily the best way to address this. How about weapons screening programs; how about zero tolerance?

PAUL PFINGST: I was speaking with a group of parents out at Santana this morning and I was discussing that with them trying to get some feedback as to how they would feel about weapons screening. One of the parents’ observation was, well, if they can’t get a weapon in here, what stops them from going to a McDonald’s or to a park or some other place if someone is intent upon killing? It’s a complex system. Right now I think the first thing we have to do is hold the shooter accountable. There has to be a predictability to people who contemplate this in the country that if you think about doing something this the consequences will be severe and it’s not something that won’t be taken seriously. Clearly I intend to do that. Beyond that, I think it’s going to require the contribution of experts and child psychology and so to make recommendations to our school boards and superintendents and principals.

GWEN IFILL: You’re talking about death penalty or life penalty when you talk about taking this seriously?

PAUL PFINGST: Yes. Well, we don’t have a death penalty for juveniles in California, and for 14- and 15-year-olds there’s no sentence of life without parole. But, nonetheless, the sentences are severe. Youngsters do appreciate the fact and expect that there are consequences to serious acts and that people are held accountable for serious acts. We are going to do that; we’re going to aggressively prosecute this case. There’s two paths to follow: One is to make sure that justice is done for the victims in this case who have suffered an enormous tragedy. The other path is to learn.

GWEN IFILL: And, Dr. Kinlan, what exactly do you think can be done? Is this a question of – I don’t know — metal detectors or is there something greater underlying all of this?

JOAN KINLAN: I think that the alienation of youth; the problem of parents not being as involved with their children; we have over one million kids who come home to an empty house each day; I think that greater involvement with your child, with the community is really critical. I think that these are key issues.

GWEN IFILL: Okay. Thank you all for joining us very much.