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The nurturing of the beast: SMC professor recalls Zawahri as an elementary schooler

Professor+of+Early+Childhood+Development+Wendy+Parise+reflects+on+her+time+teaching+John+Zawahri+at+the+Santa+Monica+College+Bundy+Campus+on+June+1%2C+2015.+Zawahri+carried+out+shooting+in+Santa+Monica+on+June+7%2C+2013%2C+leaving+5+people+killed+and+4+injured.+He+was+shot+by+police+on+scene.+
Professor of Early Childhood Development Wendy Parise reflects on her time teaching John Zawahri at the Santa Monica College Bundy Campus on June 1, 2015. Zawahri carried out shooting in Santa Monica on June 7, 2013, leaving 5 people killed and 4 injured. He was shot by police on scene.

Professor of Early Childhood Development Wendy Parise reflects on her time teaching John Zawahri at the Santa Monica College Bundy Campus on June 1, 2015. Zawahri carried out shooting in Santa Monica on June 7, 2013, leaving 5 people killed and 4 injured. He was shot by police on scene.

Kira VandenBrande

Kira VandenBrande

Professor of Early Childhood Development Wendy Parise reflects on her time teaching John Zawahri at the Santa Monica College Bundy Campus on June 1, 2015. Zawahri carried out shooting in Santa Monica on June 7, 2013, leaving 5 people killed and 4 injured. He was shot by police on scene.

Alci Rengifo, Editor-in-Chief

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When a shooter made his way to Santa Monica College on June 7, 2013 and took three lives before being shot down in the campus library, SMC professor Wendy Parise was shocked to recognize the face of the suspect. It was her former pre-school student, John Zawahri.

Two years later and many questions still hover over the day when Zawahri, clad in dark commando gear and brandishing a machine gun, killed his father and brother, set their home ablaze and–while evading police–found his way to SMC.

While the Santa Monica Police Department has declared the case closed, the full file on the shooting remains under lock and key. But what the department has confirmed is that the key facts of the shooting remain as they were in 2013 and Zawahri was concluded to have acted alone with no accomplices.

Traces of his local connections are slowly dissipating. His mother Ronda was said to be working at the Rose Cafe in Venice at the time of the shootings, but the cafe has since closed, and with it any local traces of the mother.

Yet not all traces disappear completely. One link to a younger Zawahri, before he grew into a 23-year-old driven to murder, is SMC Early Child Education professor Wendy Parise.

After the shooting Parise wrote an article about her experiences as Zawahri’s teacher and the broader issue of troubled children growing up within a system that is still trying to properly help them. It was picked up by local press and for a brief moment raised serious questions about what forms a human time bomb.

Parise interacted with Zawahri when he was a 4-year-old pre-school student at the Lincoln Child Development Center. The story she tells is of a reserved child from a home full of rages seen and unseen. “I had John as a pre-school student. He was in my special education pre-school class,” said Parise. “He was a child who was having some difficulty. He was very quiet, they were concerned. He was referred to our program.”

Already teaching at SMC at the time of the shooting, it was impossible to imagine at the time that 20 years later, Parise would again cross paths with an older Zawahri in such a tragic fashion. “We were all in shock. But we didn’t know who or what happened on that Friday. On Saturday I kept looking at the internet to see what was going on. Then I scroll through the news and they published a picture of the shooter. At first I saw his face and said ‘oh my gosh, his face looks familiar to me.'”

Parise connected the name to the young boy who had been her student years before. “I was completely shocked because I knew him as a child. What really shocked me is that this was a family who we were involved with who were very traumatized.”

The details Parise share coincide to what investigators reported soon after the shootings: That Zawahri came from a home with signs of violent domestic abuse. “The mother was a victim of domestic violence,” said Parise. “I began to think about how we had failed this child. He had gone through the Santa Monica school system and really passed along when he was living in a very violent situation.”

As Parise puts it, the teachers at Zawahri’s school did all they could to provide an adequate education but “it was the family that needed intervention.” She described Zawahri as a child who was “very gentle, very mild. And very withdrawn. I think he was so protective of his mother, I could see that even at a very young age, and rightly so because the dad was being overtly violent.”

The violence in the Zawahri home became all too clear when the mother approached Parise and other faculty claiming that her husband had threatened her and her two sons with a knife. “She said ‘I don’t know what to do, my husband pulled a knife on me and my son John and my son Chris.’ So we sent her to a battered women’s shelter. She stayed there but stayed with this man for another seven or eight years and then finally divorced him.”

One aspect of the case that Parise feels has not received enough attention is how Zawahri’s mother was out of the country, in Lebanon, when he carried out the rampage. According to police reports, the letter Zawahri left behind expressed hopes that his mother would be taken care of and that she would receive financial support from his father’s estate.

“It’s so tragic. When we look at this kind of tragedy that seems to be happening over and over and if you look at the seeds of where it begins, it does begin in the home, in the family, the poverty, the tragedy of what’s going on around the child,” emphasized Parise.

“I remember doing a home visit and visiting their home,” recalled Parise. “And everything seemed fine. But then things start coming out. Most families won’t just openly admit ‘yeah we’re dysfunctional, my husband beats me.'”

As Parise points out, the story of Zawahri and other names now enshrined in terrible notoriety raises the question of nature versus nurture. What makes a killer? What pushes an individual into the abyss? Are we hard-wired predators? Or do our surroundings and experiences morph us into nightmares?

“The research is showing that nurture does play a big part,” said Parise. “It’s called ‘toxic stress,’ it can affect the brain function and everything else. Those early experiences when the brain is very young.”

“We do have services for people. For example, John Zawahri’s family did receive help from a battered women’s shelter and he did receive psych services help through out his life. Maybe the first thing is awareness, but it’s a slow change,” said Parise.

“Our educational system is broken. We can do a lot to educate the child but if we don’t help the adults raising these children we’re not going to get anywhere,” said Parise. “The kid comes to school and we want to teach them spelling words but dad was thrown in jail last night and he’s had nothing to eat.”

A haunting question remains how one can catch a walking threat, or notice an individual close to the breaking point. “Don’t so many people say would have, could have, should have right? I’m sure John’s friends might even think that,” said Parise. “The thing to do is take things seriously. If you see that someone is having potentially dangerous behavior to themselves, they can see if they can get them over to Psych Services. It’s a tough one.”

 

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3 Comments

3 Responses to “The nurturing of the beast: SMC professor recalls Zawahri as an elementary schooler”

  1. I LOVE POKEMON BUT I HATE THIS STORU on June 7th, 2015 12:45 am

    I think its really unfortunate that the Corsair chose this as their cover story. As one on the students who witnessed the shooting, it was a terrible and horrifying experience. The article seems to be trying to paint the shooter in a sympathetic light making it seem like “it wasn’t his fault” and “he only did what he did because of the way he was raised”

    I am here to say there is NO EXCUSE FOR WHAT THAT MAN DID HE KILLED PEOPLE AND RUINED OTHERS LIVES BY TAKING AWAY THEIR LOVED ONES. Regardless of the reasons behind the shooters actions he is a MONSTER not someone to be pitied.

    I have been following the corsair closely this year and the editor and chief , Alci Rengifo seems to be more focused on pushing his own view points (mostly Marxist propaganda) then reporting on relevant issues at SMC. Please learn from your mistakes i would suggest reading up on journalist ethics and unbiased reporting. I will link you the information:

    https://www.spj.org/pdf/ethicscode.pdf

  2. Alci on June 8th, 2015 12:39 am

    No age is free of ignorance, as the above message demonstrates. I will begin by noting that like the anonymous commentator, or Mr. Or Mrs. Pokemon (I am left with free use of the imagination considering the name chosen by the commentator), I too was in the library when the shooter walked in and began firing. I was in the first computer of lower floor lab facing the checkout area. I clearly remember the intense screams and the terror of not knowing exactly what was happening or why, I remember the student next to me falling apart out of fear. Now let’s address Mr. Or Mrs. Pokemon’s points.

    1. “The article seems to be trying to paint the shooter in a sympathetic light making it seem like “it wasn’t his fault” and “he only did what he did because of the way he was raised.'”

    This is a ridiculous judgement of the article considering the article never once makes the kind of suggestions or proposes the kind of ideas Mr. or Mrs. Pokemon puts in quotes. Never once does the article suggest Zawahri wasn’t at fault for his crimes or that his rampage was simply the result of a bad childhood (many individuals have survived traumatic childhoods and not become mass murderers). The article asks important questions about the origins of Zawahri and ponders the personal history that led up to that horrific June day in 2013. We would have little understanding of history in general if we never bothered to understand or investigate the events, histories and incidents that helped form the bigger picture.

    2. “I am here to say there is NO EXCUSE FOR WHAT THAT MAN DID HE KILLED PEOPLE AND RUINED OTHERS LIVES BY TAKING AWAY THEIR LOVED ONES. Regardless of the reasons behind the shooters actions he is a MONSTER not someone to be pitied.”

    This is again, a very simplistic approach to the article’s purpose. Hannah Arendt once suggested that the greatest crime a person can do is not think. I highly recommend her book “Eichmann In Jerusalem,” which deals with the refusal to really understand how Nazi Germany worked as opposed to just saying “well they were all just monsters.” Zawahri’s actions were monstrous, there is no excuse for them, but it is dangerous to simply dismiss any possibility of UNDERSTANDING where he came from and what experiences molded the monster. It is as if Mr. or Mrs. Pokemon would suggest we never look into WHY ISIS exists or how the Iraq War led their formation (of course Mr. Or Mrs. Pokemon will dismiss this as “Marxist propaganda”).

    3. “I have been following the corsair closely this year and the editor and chief , Alci Rengifo seems to be more focused on pushing his own view points (mostly Marxist propaganda) then reporting on relevant issues at SMC.”

    First, thank you for following the paper this semester, we value our readers. Second, I am not a Marxist, but I am a Bakuninist on a good day. I don’t see how the personal history of a killer who attacked our campus is not relevant to SMC.

  3. Joe on June 12th, 2015 11:13 am

    I think what the article is trying to say is that monsters aren’t born, they’re created. Coming from a family with its own set of issues and unfortunate circumstances, and working in the mental health field, there is a definite correlation between rough upbringing and psychotic or irrational behavior. It’s not excusing the actions of a person to highlight the fact that a progression of events shaped them into what they were, and it sure doesn’t excuse Zawahri’s actions. The problem is that we live in a society that perceives mental illness as a blight issue, rather than a social issue.

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