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

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."