By Sheri Posnick-Goodwin
Hillsdale High School
“I was the person I wanted to be in that moment,” says Hillsdale High School teacher Kennet Santana, reflecting on the action he took that prevented a school massacre.
Santana says that he often wondered what he would do if an armed intruder entered the campus. He was put to the test in August, when he encountered a teenager in the hallway carrying a chainsaw and sword. He tackled the youth without a second thought. The 17-year-old had already detonated two bombs, but nobody was harmed. Once Santana wrestled the youth to the floor, the teacher realized he had just tackled someone with more bombs strapped to his chest — eight to be exact.
Moments later Santana was joined by counselor Ed Canda, also a member of the San Mateo Union High School District Teachers Association, and Principal Jeff Gilbert, who both helped hold down the attacker until police arrived. The quick reaction and courage of the three school employees prevented the former Hillsdale High student from carrying out his plan to murder students and staff.
In a news conference following the event, Santana told the media that he was not a hero, and that the real hero in his family is his brother, serving in the military in Iraq. But now that Santana has had time to process the event, he realizes his actions made a huge difference in the lives of others.
“I did something that allowed other people to live their lives,” he says. “I know that because of what I did, kids have choices now. It’s almost like giving them a gift. It was an extraordinary thing that I did.”
Santana, an English language development teacher, feels the gratitude from Hillsdale High School students on a daily basis. “They give me hugs. They look me in the eye and nod in the hallway. Sometimes it’s a nonverbal thank-you.”
For a while he had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and difficulty sleeping. But these days he’s trying not to dwell on what could have been and focusing on the positive, including his daughter and his students.
“The kids, thankfully, are moving on,” he says. “So am I. If I was stuck in that moment, I couldn’t be there for them.”
Canda also experienced PTSD symptoms. He says it was challenging to deal with his own emotions while also counseling students having difficulty coping with the trauma.
He is often asked if the school should have done things differently, or if staff should reach out more to troubled students to prevent something like this from happening again. He doesn’t think so.
“At Hillsdale we already do a good job of reaching out and connecting with kids,” says Canda. “We have small learning communities and advisers who are concerned about more than academics and who really care about the kids.” A new Student Health and Welfare Center to help students with mental health and other issues will open soon, says Canda, but it was planned before the attack.
Gilbert, the principal, says the incident shook everyone “to the core” but ultimately brought the campus together — including staff and students. He is extremely proud of how his staff reacted.
“We have had drills and have practiced what we’d do if something like this happened,” says Gilbert. “And when it wasn’t a drill, my staff knew what to do. They stayed calm and took care of business. We had the right people in the right place at the right time.”