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San Diego surburb characterized as middle America

The San Diego County suburb of Santee is smack dab in the middle of middle America, a place residents describe as a "hot dog and craft fair kind of town."

Each morning, parents in the city of 58,000 commute 10 miles to jobs in San Diego while their kids catch the bus for Santana High.

Santana is predominantly white, politically conservative and scores slightly better than the state average on reading and math exams. Its graduates include Sharon Ryer Davis, class of 1972 and the wife of Gov. Gray Davis. Only a handful of its 1,900 students are on welfare.

Crime is rare, but when it happens, it happens big. In 1998, a black Marine was left paralyzed after five white men beat him at a party in what authorities called a hate crime.

TV news trucks rolled up to the city's manicured lawns again Monday when a freshman student allegedly shot and killed two students and wounded 13 others at the school.

"He was a skater, and maybe picked on a little more because he was new and just moved here from the East Coast, but it wasn't anything out of the ordinary," said Santana junior John Schardt, who watched his buddy Randy Gordon die in the bathroom.

Santana High, which opened in 1965, has its usual cliques of athletes, skaters, punkers and groups based on race, Schardt said. Although there are occasional squabbles between the groups, there has never been any violence. In fact, students held peace marches in response to the Marine's beating and after the Columbine High shooting in 1999.

"Santee, and this school in particular, has made a substantial effort to avoid violence and promote peaceful resolution of differences," said Ted Crooks, a member of the Grossmont Union High School District that oversees Santana and the town's second high school, West Hills High.

Like most schools, Santana has had trouble with bullying, and the school board passed a resolution to try to reduce it, Crooks said.

After the Columbine shooting, deputies from the San Diego County sheriff's substation in Santee surveyed Santana High students, found that many are bullied and came up with a program to help.

Using a city grant, deputies counseled students and held an assembly and were working on a follow-up study to see if campus tensions had subsided when Monday's shooting occurred.

"Students come to administration frequently and talk to us about things that are bothering them. That's the kind of climate we have at this school," Principal Karen Degischer said at a news conference.

"I feel like we were prepared to respond, we had things in place, but we don't know why this happened, and we may never know."

Santana High was evacuated and many students and their families spent the day crying and consoling one another at the nearby Round Table Pizza or Sonrise Church. Professional counselors will be at the church Tuesday to help students and their families. Santana High will be closed.

Randy Voepel has been mayor of Santee for just nine weeks.

"If I were mayor for 900 years it would not prepare me for this moment," he said. "We are a town of Little League and doctors. This could happen in any town in America if this can happen in Santee."

Santana is a stable school, much like the community. All but five of the 77 teachers are fully credentialed. The school is rated a 6 on the statewide Academic Performance Index rankings, which use a 1-to-10 scale. Forty-four percent of the graduates leave with the necessary courses to go to college.

The average home price is about $200,000, and the median household income is about $60,000 a year, according to the Chamber of Commerce.

"Our biggest event every year is the annual Spooktacular, when businesses get together to put on a haunted house for the kids and sell their wares," said Don Bannon said, who volunteers for the Chamber.

"It's the kind of place where you can leave your keys in the car. We're all pretty stunned right now."