SANTEE, Calif. — Girls and Boys Town President Father Val Peter applauded President Bush's remarks in the aftermath of the March 5 shooting that left two students dead and thirteen other people wounded at Santana High School in this San Diego, Calif., suburb.
A Santana student, 15year-old Charles Andrew “Andy” Williams, has been charged with two counts of murder, 13 counts of premeditated attempted murder and 13 counts of assault with a firearm. Friends of the boy said he was often the subject of teasing that might have motivated the attack.
The shooting was one of the most serious of a string of recent incidents of campus violence — and it was followed later in the week by another shooting, this one at a Catholic high school.
Kimberly Marchese, 13, was shot in the shoulder March 7 in the cafeteria of Bishop Neumann Junior-Senior High School in Williamsport, Pa. Police allege she was shot by a fellow eighth-grader, Elizabeth C. Bush.
Speaking after the Santana High School shooting, Bush attributed such events to an anti-life ethic and a lack of moral education in America, saying, “When America teaches our children right from wrong and teaches values to respect life in our country, our country will be better off.”
Father Peters, whose homes for at-risk youth are located in Southern California, New England and the Midwest, said he thought Bush “struck a good chord.”
“He made a very good statement about the general need of this country to throw into the garbage can the culture of death,” he said.
Father Mike Cullane, who works in Santee, said he saw firsthand the need for authentic moral instruction at the school. Soon after the shootings, he walked over to Santana to comfort the victims. They flocked to him, he said, because of what he represented.
“There were counselors all over the place. But the kids weren't talking so much with the counselors,” he said.
“I was so proud to be a Catholic priest. I wasn't there for show, but that these kids could identify with me and the Church and it was something they were a part of. There are so many out there. God is not in their life.”
Later, some 200 students from Santana and a neighboring school flocked to Guardian Angels Church, the only Catholic parish in town, 10 hours after the shooting.
With Matthew Pinto, a former youth leader at the parish and the co-founder of the Catholic apologetics magazine Envoy, he fielded the students' questions as best he could.
“God is not talked about in the homes because people don't know where they come from and where they are going,” said Father Cullane. “We have to have God in our lives.”
Pinto said the ignorance of God among youth has disastrous effects. “Young people nowadays, deep in their core, question whether hope really exists,” he said. “They are screaming for leadership. Without vision, without leadership, they will be attempting to fight the battle with very few weapons in hand. …
Morality is being made up as we go.”
One Catholic priest cautioned about too enthusiastically championing Bush's words.
Father Frank Hoffman, a chaplain at Scripps Catholic Hospital, where three of the students injured in the Santee shootings were sent, told the Register he thought the president was “talking out of both sides of his mouth.”
“If he said we have to respect all life I would totally agree with that,”
Father Hoffman said. “[But] I'm not sure he supports that when he supports capital punishment. I think it goes a lot deeper than that.”
Father Cullane, who said he voted for Bush, agreed with Father Hoffman.
“I think we have to respect life — that's the important thing,” Father Mike said. “But the president has to realize that we have to respect life across the board. I think the death penalty is complete violence.”
What can be done? For starters, said Father Peters of Girls and Boys Town, the media should be cleaned up.
“Is there anybody left in America who fails to understand the relationship between violence in the media and violence in our schools?” he asked.
“There can't possibly be anybody left except people who have their hand over their eyes and their fingers in their ears. When are we going to, as a nation, address the public heath issues of violence in the media?
“It's not a religious issue, it's a public health issue,” he said. “Our nation is at risk because of what our children are fed through music and other media.”