First published in the Sept. 10 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
The prayer circle that forms each year at the steps of South Pasadena High School carries on a tradition steeped in love, faith and resilience — a response to a near-tragic incident eight years earlier.
The “Pray for Schools” event, which returned last week, was originally set in motion after SPHS faced a mass shooting threat in 2014. The news jolted the school’s sense of security and sent shock waves through the whole community. Although tragedy was ultimately prevented, the scare was interpreted by some residents as a wake-up call to stay connected through support and prayer.
Karen Kano, who coordinated the Sept. 1 prayer gathering of about 40 people, recalls feeling the danger of the situation sink in; two teenagers were arrested after police learned of what they called a “very viable” plan to kill school staff members and other students. The suspects later admitted to a felony count of making criminal threats and were sentenced to probation by a Juvenile Court judge.
“There was disbelief that something like this would happen here when we have such a close-knit community, but the threat revealed to us that mass shootings really can happen anywhere,” Kano said. “However, what was most important was the response we had, which was coming together.”
Though Kano’s two children, currently attending SPHS and South Pasadena Middle School, were young at the time of the shooting threat, their knowledge of the incident and similar occurrences have become a source of anxiety over time. In 2014, there were six mass shootings across the United States. One of them occurred near UC Santa Barbara, when a man killed seven and injured 13.
Ann Wang, an SPHS mother, took some comfort in knowing that the threat in South Pasadena at the time was short-lived, but said she feels it was an eye-opener.
“Everyone just felt like it was too close,” Wang said. “We felt like we literally dodged a bullet.”
Lydia Banales, who has lived in South Pasadena with her husband Joseph for 57 years, said she remembers how rattled they were by the unexpected threat.
“It was a very, very scary time,” Banales said. “Our grandchildren were at Holy Family [School] right next door when we heard about it — just the idea that it could possibly happen here was hard to believe. But it was less concern for our own grandkids and more of a concern that the threat was here for any kids at all.”
Wang said prayer was one of the major pathways that helped soothe the community’s fear.
“Being together, praying for help and thanking God that it didn’t go as far as it could have was necessary for our community to heal,” she said. “We were reminded that we needed each other to watch out for one another and definitely to pray for each other.”
Last week, community members standing in a prayer circle took turns sharing their concerns and voicing their prayers for the school community. In between prayers, the neighbors sang, sharing a spiritual bond.
“I think prayer is really important for our families,” Kano told the Review, “and I truly believe that as parents and as people, we can’t do everything alone. Prayer helps us to understand what our needs are and relieve the pressure from ourselves by instead relying on God, who is capable of handling anything.”
Kano said the “Pray for Schools” event unites the community for a common purpose.
“Gathering in prayer is something that’s valuable,” she said. “As a community, we should want to have compassion for our neighbors and understand what matters to them and what they care about.”
The prayers vary from year to year depending on community needs. Kano emphasized that mental health has been a growing concern in general over the years.
“It’s heartbreaking that we are so academically strong as a district, but what comes with that is often too much pressure on the kids, and within our kids, to achieve,” she said, noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has also contributed to mental health concerns. “COVID and the isolation that it caused ruined opportunities for students. They’re learning how to cope with that. It’s sad for us, as parents, to watch them grow up during this time.”
Banales, a grandmother of 10, said she believes the tradition of gathering for prayer stays alive because South Pasadena is “just that kind of place” that fosters togetherness regardless of the challenges it encounters.
“We came out to pray for our kids, schools and staff — they need it, especially now with COVID, but they always need it,” Banales said. “They need our support.”