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A reader writes … By Jim Mersereau

March 11, 2001

On March 5 at Santana High in Santee a 15-year-old boy pulled a pistol and killed two fellow students and wounded a number of others. That is tragic. Compounding the senselessness is the knowledge prior to the shooting this young boy told numerous classmates and even some adults he was going to do it.

The question is being asked, "How could all of those people have disregarded such a clearly stated threat? Why didn't they notify authorities or take some action to try to prevent this from happening?" Why indeed.

On Feb. 28 and again on March 5 in the PROBE section of your newspaper, items appeared that criticized both myself and the church I am the pastor of for taking exactly that kind of action.

In recent months we have had a young man attending our church who has a long history of mental illness as well as some acts of violence against others. This man was welcomed and included into the full life of our church. Members had him as a guest in their homes and purchased Christmas presents for him and his family. On numerous occasions both the church and individual members provided financial assistance for his family. Suffice it to say he was made to feel very welcome.


Unfortunately, over time his conduct at church became disruptive and threatening. On several occasions he threatened to harm church and staff members. The most serious incident occurred Feb. 11. The man was disruptive and aggressive toward church members. In the privacy of my office one of our deacons and I attempted to discuss his behavior with him. He became so loud and threatening that people in other parts of the building came running to see what the matter was.

During that encounter this young man repeatedly threatened: "I am going to get a gun and commit suicide and I'm going to take people with me!" He specifically included church members in his threats. At that point I called police for assistance. The police took him into custody and turned him over to county mental health, who observed him for 24 hours and then released him.

It's important to note Feb. 11 was not the first time this man had threatened church members with violence, but it was the most serious. After consulting with professionals in law enforcement, mental health, denominational leaders and an attorney, we decided we had to take the young man at his word, believe he intends to do the things he threatened and take appropriate precautions.

Since neither law enforcement nor county mental health held him, we decided a restraining order would provide at least a limited deterrent. We were hoping to raise the awareness level of the threat this young man poses to himself and others. That is why we ultimately turned to the judicial system for assistance.

I am troubled that your PROBE writer, both in her interview with me Feb. 2 and again in her printed remarks of March 5, states the church "overreacted."

As the tragedy in Santee so vividly reminds us, when people make threats like this they must be taken seriously — by all. To my knowledge the young man in our case still has not received additional help to deal with the threats he made to harm himself and others. That continues to be a cause of concern for me, as it should be for all of us.

As a community we must not be paranoid or uncaring of people with mental illnesses, but neither can we turn a blind eye to obvious problems. We are not doing this young man any favors by waiting until he commits a serious crime before he gets our full attention.

JIM MERSEREAU is senior pastor at Central Baptist Church in El Centro.

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