Jeff Jardine

What never happens here happened here at UC Merced

University of California, Merced, freshman Karen Bustamante, left, hugs mother Gloria at the school after a man stabbed and wounded four people on campus before being shot and killed by police Wednesday.
University of California, Merced, freshman Karen Bustamante, left, hugs mother Gloria at the school after a man stabbed and wounded four people on campus before being shot and killed by police Wednesday. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

Once again, something happened that wasn’t supposed to happen where it happened, meaning among us.

At least, that is what we’ve conditioned ourselves to believe: that violence on campuses occurs everywhere else and we can simply turn to another channel to get it out of our living rooms or delete it from our social media platforms. That what happened at Sandy Hook and Columbine and other places can’t possibly happen in our schools and make victims out of our children and students.

Think again. The Cleveland School shooting in Stockton 26 years ago still haunts those who lost children and those who survived the attack.

Just 33 days ago, four Summerville High students were arrested for plotting a mass shooting on campus. And now, it’s happened in a classroom at the University of California, Merced, where a student stabbed four people before campus police shot him to death. Their campus. Their hunky-dory, easygoing campus where nothing like this could possibly happen until it did.

The common denominator in each of these cases? Each occurred here in the Valley, not somewhere else. They left stunned and saddened people to talk about their campus communities, how much they are like one big happy family and how they all get along in this Andy Griffith-Mayberry sort of way. That certainly changed when an intruder came on to the elementary school campus, killed five young children and wounded 29 others in Stockton in 1989.

Perhaps they are even more shocked when the perpetrators are their schoolmates, as in the Summerville High case and in Merced on Wednesday morning.

Lorena Anderson covered the school’s opening as a newspaper reporter when it opened in 2005 and now is one of the university’s communications officers. She’s watched it grow into a school of nearly 6,600 students with more than 300 faculty members, yet maintaining that closeness over the years.

“We all know each other,” she said. “That’s what makes it so shocking, that it was one of their own (who attacked).”

Really, who wakes up in the morning and heads to an 8 a.m. class worrying about a knife-wielding schoolmate? It caught everyone by surprise because it was supposed to catch everyone, except for the assailant himself, by surprise.

Dorothy Leland, UC Merced’s chancellor, clearly never expected to emcee a press conference such as the one she presided over Wednesday afternoon. Nervously she referred to the attack as a “tragic accident,” prompting a TV reporter in the gallery to question her choice of words for all to hear.

“Accident?” the reporter asked.

“OK, a tragic event,” Leland corrected herself, adding that the good news was that “the person who caused this event will no longer be able to cause an event like this in the future.”

Indeed, this one could have been deadly, Merced County Sheriff Vern Warnke said. A 31-year-old construction worker named Byron Price heard the commotion and went into the classroom to break it up. He distracted the attacker and likely saved the first victim’s life. Then Price became a victim when the attacker turned and slashed him with a hunting knife.

“He’s a hero,” Warnke said. “He got 10 staples (to close the wound) for his effort.”

Neither Warnke, Leland nor university police Chief Albert Vasquez could explain why the attacking student did what he did – why he attacked the first victim first, or how much planning went into the attack. He’d never been in any trouble on campus and had no contact with authorities until they were forced to shoot him, Vasquez said.

“We had no idea of what this individual was capable of,” he said.

Nor will they ever understand what drove him to act out so violently with so little regard for others.

They just know that on Wednesday, they stood in front of a very large group of media that otherwise wouldn’t visit the campus, to talk about something that always happens somewhere else.

Except it did, and on their campus, and to their students.

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