‘ PULLING A COLUMBINE’
WHO WAS TO BLAME FOR THE SANTANA HIGH SCHOOL SLAYINGS – BABY - FACED TRIGGERMAN CHARLES ‘ ANDY’ WILLIAMS, OR THE SO CIETY THAT PRODUCED HIM?
No one believed Charles Williams when he said he wanted to recreate one of the worst school shootings in US history
Monday 5 March 2001 should have been a day like any other. But for the staff and students of Santana High School in Santee, California, it would prove to be the worst day of their lives. At 9.20am, when the school day had barely begun, gunfire rang out from the boys’ restroom. The shooting spree that followed lasted just six minutes, but at its end two boys lay dead and 13 other people were wounded. Later, friends of Williams said that he had been warning for weeks that he planned to ‘ pull a Columbine’ – so why did nobody stop him?
Williams was an unlikely assassin – 1.63 metres tall and young- looking for his 15 years, he was generally known as a fun guy who liked joking around. Yet boiling inside him was a murderous rage, which commentators have been quick to attribute to his environment. Following the shootings, reports started to emerge of a broken and dysfunctional home, bullying and estrangement, and an uncaring school system that was ill- equipped to support the most vulnerable.
“His future’s gone”
In an article published less than a week after the slayings, Time magazine described Williams as a “lost boy”, its words not only echoing Williams’s mother, who lamented, “He’s lost. His future’s gone”, but also evoking the lost boys in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. In Barrie’s novel, the lost boys are those “who fall out of their prams when the nurse is looking the other way, and if they are not claimed in seven days, they are sent far away to the Neverland.” In both Peter Pan and Time, the inference is clear: if those pesky women had done their jobs properly, those helpless young boys would be safe.
Coverage of the Williams case is notable for the heavily gendered attention that critics pay to the lack of contact the boy had with his mother. Since his parents’ divorce 11 years earlier, Williams had lived with his father in Brunswick, Maryland, while his brother lived with his mother in South Carolina. Contact between Williams and his mother was limited to a visit at Christmas time and an occasional call or card on his birthday. Reports about Williams’s relationship with his father vary, with many describing his father as loving and engaged and others calling him neglectful and permissive. Whatever the facts in that regard, neither parent was present at Williams’s arraignment, both claiming to be too distraught to attend court in support of their son.
Friends in Maryland recalled Williams as a happy, welladjusted boy with a strong network of friends, although the fact that he would call the mothers of his friends ‘ Mom’ seems to suggest that he longed for a maternal influence. In 1999, when Williams was 13, he and his father moved to Twentynine Palms near Palm Springs, a structured and nurturing environment where Williams became actively involved in the church and grew close to his grandparents. Six months later he was uprooted again, when his father took a job in Santee, near San Diego. Williams found it difficult to settle there, the more cosmopolitan atmosphere proving a difficult adjustment for a boy who had only ever lived in rural environments. At Santana High School, Williams made friends with a tough crowd and began drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana on a daily basis.
It was at school that the first of the ‘ red flags’ began appearing, but nobody took heed of the signs that Williams’s life was spiralling out of control. Living in a single- parent family with a father who worked meant that Williams was often unsupervised and was lacking boundaries. His once- decent grades plummeted and he truanted regularly, preferring to hang out with his friends and get stoned and drunk. Years later, Williams claimed that at this point in his
It was at school that the first of the ‘ red flags’ began appearing, but nobody
took heed of the signs
life he was also addicted to prescription painkillers, which he stole from his friend’s mother. Neither his father nor the school appear to have taken steps to get Williams back on the straight and narrow. They also seem to have been oblivious to the fact that he was getting badly bullied at school and was allegedly being sexually abused by an older man.
Craving acceptance, meeting rejection
Like many other schools, Santana High was a tribal place. Students segregated themselves in broadly defined cliques: jocks, nerds, freaks, goths, Mexican gangsters, white supremacists, etc. Gentry Robler, a 16- year- old sophomore, told journalists after the shooting, “There’s a lot of hate around here. This is a school that was waiting for something like this to happen.” After the killings, news reports were filled with descriptions of the bullying that Williams suffered from outside his friendship group and within it. Williams was small and slight – no match for the much bigger kids, who
taking a gun and having power over life and death would offer the ultimate means of re- inscribing his masculinity
physically and verbally assaulted him, stole his belongings and humiliated him on a daily basis. Ridiculed even by his closest friends, Williams sought solace in a tiny stuffed monkey named ‘ Spunky’, which he took to school every day and believed to be his only friend.
Ten years after the shootings, Williams told reporters that during this period he and his friends were being sexually abused by 29- year- old Chris Reynolds, the boyfriend of the mother of Williams’s friend Josh Stevens. Reynolds would buy the boys drugs, cigarettes and alcohol in return for sexual favours, and the resultant guilt and self- loathing seems to have impacted on Williams’s mental state. Although the claim of abuse was met with scepticism in some quarters, it does fit with the sudden dip in Williams’s academic performance and personal behaviour. The nature of the abuse is also consistent with known models of grooming and child sexual exploitation, and Reynolds has since been unveiled as a sexual predator and has been jailed at least twice for offences against children.
Yet for all the warning signs, nobody at Santana High or in Williams’s family seems to have noticed what was happening. When interviewed years after the shootings, Williams’s dad said he knew his son was in with a bad crowd but that he simply told him, “I don’t like these guys, but that’s your choice to hang out with them.” The school similarly brushed away any suggestion of culpability, claiming that there was no evidence that Williams was bullied, insisting that staff were never aware of any serious or concerning incidents.
However, Williams insists that he reported the bullying to staff on several occasions and at one point even told a member of the school security team that he intended to bring in a gun and “shoot up the school”. It seems unlikely that just two years after the Columbine massacre, those in authority would ignore a self- confessed wannabe school shooter, but even if Williams’s claims in this regard are untrue, there are many who feel the school should have done more. Speaking on behalf of the Zuckor family, who filed a claim against the school district, attorney Kenneth Hoyt said, “Andy Williams exhibited signs and symptoms of a troubled person… there needs to be some intervention. We believe that the school should have procedures in place.” Daniel Shinoff, attorney for Grossmont School District, denied that the school was culpable, saying that responsibility for the tragic events of 5 March 2001 lay squarely with the shooter.
Whether the school was aware of Williams’s problems or not, it is a fact that Williams repeatedly told his peers that he intended to steal one of his father’s guns and use it in a Columbine- style atrocity. When pressed, he would laugh and claim to be joking, which suggests that, initially at least, he was simply posturing, hoping to gain respect and notoriety.
Although talking about his plan got Williams the attention he seemed to crave, it did little to improve his standing among his peers. Most of his friends mocked him for his perceived inability to carry out the threat, and Williams has claimed that instead of trying to stop him they called him a “pussy” and urged him to go through with it. Josh Stevens did tell Chris Reynolds what Williams was planning, but Reynolds, keen to be perceived as a buddy rather than an authority figure, did not report the threats. Like the boys he hung around with, Reynolds displayed a kind of toxic masculinity rooted in a need for social dominance.
The Good Men Project defines toxic masculinity as “a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly ‘ feminine’ traits – which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual – are the means by which your status as ‘ man’ can be taken away.” To the diminutive Williams, bullied and branded a “pussy” by his peers, the pain and humiliation he suffered at the hands of his tormentors must have felt like proof that his beleaguered masculine performance was lacking the potency and impact demanded by society. Taking a gun and literally having power over life and death would offer the ultimate means of re- inscribing his masculinity and ensuring that he was feared and not forgotten.
Josh Stevens told Time that Williams was inspired to kill by the nu- metal band Linkin Park. Their music, which explores themes of loneliness and alienation, personal suffering and inner demons, resonated with Williams, who claims to have felt suicidal in the run- up to the shootings. Their debut album Hybrid Theory, released in 2000, contains an angry, angst- ridden song called In the End.
The lyrics take on a chilling significance in the aftermath of the Santana High School shootings: “In spite of the way you were mocking me/ Acting like I was part of your property/ Remembering all the times you fought with me/ I’m surprised it got so far...” It’s hard to say whether the song pushed Williams over the edge, but it certainly seems to have meant something to him; in a note he left for his father prior to the shooting, he quoted the line, ‘“I tried so hard, and got so far, but in the end it doesn’t really matter.”
In the years since the attack, Williams has made various claims seemingly designed to reduce his culpability. In an interview with Miles O’Brien of PBS NewsHour in 2013, he said, “At 15 I didn’t comprehend the finality and the wrongness… I didn’t think that two boys were going to die, I didn’t think that 13 people were going to get shot. I just thought that I was going to make a lot of noise and that the cops were going to show up.”
Whether he intended for things to go as far as they did or not, the fact remains that opportunities to prevent the tragedy were missed, both at home and at school. In his book School Shooters: Understanding High School, College, And Adult Perpetrators, Dr. Peter Langman identifies common patterns in school shooting cases. He notes that shooters are often small in stature, socially marginalised and the victims of traumatising events. Romantic and academic failures are also common, as is stress related to change or loss.
Skinny little Charles ‘ Andy’ Williams – who relocated twice in two months and was bullied, abused and failing academically, was estranged from his mother and stinging after a break- up – ticked all of the boxes, but nobody noticed. Perhaps if they had, two teenagers wouldn’t have been murdered in the school they should have been safe in, and the child who pulled the trigger wouldn’t have been tried as an adult and sentenced to 50 years in jail.
above The boys’ restroom where Williams killed his first victim. Bryan Zuckor was shot at pointblank range in the back of the head and died where he lay, on the dirty flooropposite A quadrangle at Santana High School lies eerily empty one day after the shooting. 15- year- old Williams had repeatedly warned his peers of his plan to “shoot up the school”
Right Randy Gordon, 17, a talented track and cross country runner, was chatting with a friend when he was shot in the back. He died in hospital
above School security guard Peter Ruiz, 22, was shot three times by Williams as he tried to usher students to safety. One .22- calibre round passed right through his shoulder
below The Linkin Park song In The End is said to have inspired the atrocity. Its lyrics talk of pain, humiliation and fighting, before musing “I’m surprised it got so far”
above Charles Andrew Williams being led away from theEast County Regional Center Courthouse facility following his arraignment for murder, attempted murder and assault with a firearmbelow A student grieves at a makeshift shrine outside Santana High School