Thursday, July 26, 2007

Great Moments in SCVistory: The Almost-Kind-of Bomb at Valencia High School

It would be a lie to say that not a lot is happening in SCV. At this very moment, Don and Cheri Fleming are doubtless planning a new ad promoting their Acura Dealership—I mean Acura Friendship (true Claritans will now have the jingle “Ah-aah, it’s a friend-ship” going through their heads). Somewhere, a family is calling a pool company to get one of their own after enduring a taxing afternoon at one of those community swimming centers. And, of course, valley seniors are gearing up for bingo at Hometown Buffet next Monday morning (8:45-10:15am, if you’re interested).

Still, I think the hustle and bustle typical of the C of SC has slowed sufficiently to allow me to publish the first of a new category of entries: Great Moments in SCVistory. I realize that history in Santa Clarita is a hotly contested bit of real estate, and I would stand little chance against our local Historical Society in talking authoritatively about this place’s past. Thus, I will be covering only those events from our very recent history that I’ve witnessed first-hand. Since my memory—like all memories, a changeful, slippery beast—will be the primary informant, I can’t say all the details will be perfect, but the basics are reliable.

Today’s bit of SCVistory dates back to April 5, 2000. I was a sophomore at Valencia High School, and I was about to witness a morning of fear, confusion, and triumph: it was the day VHS was almost-kind-of bombed.

... ... ...

P.E. begins almost as usual. The only deviation from my normal routine is throwing away a spent stick of deodorant in a trashcan; the vision of and my proximity to this trashcan will bear unexpected significance very soon. After changing into my uniform, my friend and I walk over to the cement pad that functions as our classroom. Pre-assigned yellow numbers painted on said pavement are obediently obscured by our asses, and we wait for instruction to begin.

Our teacher comes to lead us through stretches and then, well, drifts away. We begin talking in her absence but she soon returns and orders us to walk away from the gym and onto the field. We do, perplexed by why we've been ordered to sit and wait on a lawn. At some point, alarms begin ringing. We know their ringing isn’t an accident because it continues for a very long time. Amidst the auditory chaos of mechanical trills and tones, classes begin streaming onto the field as orderly units, and we hear the sirens of emergency vehicles. Though we're still in the dark about what's going on, things seem ominous when we’re told to march as far away from the school as possible.

Earlier that same morning, three boys reported observing a student throw away a suspicious device in a locker room trashcan. By suspicious, they meant consisting of six pressurized canisters of CO2 gas connected to electrical wires and a black box[1].

After receiving this report, Les Luxmore, Assistant Principal, goes to investigate for himself. Motivated by thoughts I am hard-pressed to imagine, he actually picks up the device that most people would call a bomb, and begins to walk to his office--carrying it.

Now, Valencia is a sprawling sort of high school campus, and the walk from the locker room to the administrative offices is a good hundred yards. Though classes are in session, there are always people walking around, and one can only wonder whether Mr. Luxmore waved to familiar faces as he passed by, or whether anyone wondered just why he was carrying several CO2 canisters wired together with a timing device.

Regardless, the device remains intact all the way to his office and, naturally, he sets it on the floor. Unfortunately, we can’t know when authorities were called, but I imagine they would have instructed him to leave the device in place, unless that's the sort of thing that just goes unsaid[2].

My older sister, who happened to be going to VHS while I was, recalls vividly learning about what was going on.

A blonde kid in a gray shirt, a member of the Associated Student Body, opens the door to her class. Leaning on the doorjamb with alarming casualty, he says “There’s a bomb. You need to get up to the field.” The door shuts, people assuming they've just been told a rather tasteless joke, but alarms sound and a full evacuation is ordered.

At this point, all classes have converged on the field and word of what's really going on has traveled to most every student on campus. For the first time in many of our lives, we see the bomb squad arrives with a remotely operated robot in tow to safely deal with the bomb/bomb-like device. Apparently, they were unaware that Mr. Luxmore would have been more than happy to carry the device himself.

There seems to be some confusion about just where the bomb is. Efforts initially focus on the boy’s locker room that I had been in just an hour or so earlier, but then proceed, for some inexplicable reason, further into campus.

Scores of classes continue to watch all of this unfold from the fields flanking the school proper. Some teachers try in vain to continue their lessons when there are obviously more important things to talk about, namely explosive devices with the potential to kill us. Most students, from what I remember, didn't ever think there was actually a bomb. Though newspaper articles mention crying, desperate students, none were sitting near me.

A little more than an hour after the initial discovery, the tone of the people I’m talking to has grown increasingly annoyed. No longer does the bomb that probably doesn't even exist demand attention. Any fear we might have felt is rapidly evaporating, and our thoughts are instead turning to freedom, which means finding a friend with a car.

The evacuation has messed up at least a couple of classes, parents and students are freaked out (though not as many as you'd think), and we confirm with one another that almost being blown up does little to facilitate the learning process. Anyway, it's almost time for lunch. Shouldn't we get to go home?

Eventually, of course, we are released, but first the school witnesses a glory like none we have ever seen before.

In 2000, there is still a largely vacant hill behind the athletic fields at Valencia. It’s brushy, dry, and steep.

A handful of boys manage to loose the bonds of their classes and decide to make a bid for freedom. They scamper over the fence feebly forbidding them from leaving campus. That obstacle cleared, they begin their ascent up the hill. I cannot be sure whether the metaphorical nature of their ascent was apparent to them while climbing.

The activity does not go unnoticed. Teachers shout to the boys, telling them to get back on the field that is, counterintuitively, closer to the bomb. But blessed with common sense beyond their years, they continue to climb the hill, knowing full well that if ever there was a time to make a bid for freedom, this was it. Cheers from their peers begin to swell, reaching a crescendo as they claim the summit, pumping their fists and basking in the admiration of thousands of their fellow Valencia Vikings.

Then the police grab them. Apparently, some teacher or administrator had found enough time during a bomb scare to alert officers that three kids were leaving campus. It's not like the officer had anything more important than truancy to worry about; there wasn't a bomb or anything! Needless to say, the blow to our collective psyche was a crushing one.

... ... ...

Because the bomb was determined to be more of a sophisticated imitation than actual threat to life and property, the story wasn’t widely picked up. Those who did report on it tended to bury the lead (e.g., headlines read “Bomb Found at School, Two Teens Arrested” vs. “Assistant Principal Carries Bomb From Gym to Office”). Mr. Luxmore’s actions were called, quite generously, “very brave but foolish[3].”

Of course, at least he was nobly intentioned and acted in a way to try and protect students. The same cannot be said of the two boys responsible for the device. Their identities were never released because both were minors. Rumors circulated, but Valencia was a big school and kids who make bombs—fake or otherwise—aren’t genally prominent social fixtures, so I don’t recall ever finding out who did it for sure. As for what drove them to try and blow up the school, or at least make people think they could blow up the school, I'm afraid I can offer little insight.

That day, Valencia was a kind of microcosm. Columbine was still fresh on everyone’s minds, and it would be just a year before terrorists attacked the world trade centers. We learned, and have since re-learned, that the actions of individuals can have consequences on thousands.

On a more practical level, we learned that the horrifyingly loaded phrase "McGillicutty's here" was school code for this sort of violent school emergency.

[1] I wasn't around to observe this part, so I'm relying on the reports of Daily News writers Bhvana Mistry and Orith Goldberg. Their stories, which I'll consult indirectly throughout this tale of woe and wonder, can be found here and here.
[2] In Mr. Luxmore's defense, I imagine he could have known it was a hoax or reasoned that bombs don't explode just because you touch them. Still...
[3] By Lt. Carl Deeley in the Mistry/Goldberg article. I would have said "reckless and incomprehensible", but to each their own.


Anonymous said...

I too was a student at Valencia during this blip of a high school memory and you forgot the helicopters hovering overhead trying to catch some dramatic event unfolding only to find flashing tweens trying to get there two bee-sting minutes of fame.
All in all I would say this event was a perfect example of the competency of the Valencia High administration.
Good Times.

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