.Community Stunned Following the Fatal Stabbing of a 17-Year-Old Aptos High Student

A 17-year-old Aptos High School student died on Aug. 31 after he was stabbed multiple times on campus, and two of his classmates—a 14- and 17-year-old who Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said are “gang-involved”—are facing murder charges for the attack.

The unprecedented act of on-campus violence—the first Hart says he has seen in his 33 years in law enforcement—has sent shockwaves through the Pajaro Valley Unified School District community, and sparked calls for, among others things, the return of the district’s School Resource Officer (SRO) program, which its board of trustees voted to remove last year.

The PVUSD board is expected to hold a special meeting on Sept. 15 at the Watsonville City Council Chambers to possibly revisit its decision. Neither law enforcement nor school district officials have suggested that having an officer on campus would have prevented the attack. But concerned parents and residents are asking the district to make campuses safer after the incident—and several others involving young people in and around PVUSD schools.

Just four days prior, an 18-year-old was arrested by officers with the Santa Cruz County Anti-Crime Team for having a loaded handgun at the heavily attended annual Belgard Kup football game between Watsonville and Pajaro Valley high schools. The teen was not a student of either school at the time.

And a day after the deadly Aptos stabbing, a 13-year-old student at Cesar Chavez Middle School in Watsonville was arrested after pulling out a knife on a classmate during a confrontation. In addition, Hart said during a community forum on Sept. 2 that video evidence showed there had been an uptick in fights on the Aptos High campus—including one involving one of the suspects—leading up to the stabbing.

“It’s imperative that this violence stops, and that students can attend school safely and without fear,” Hart said.

‘Senseless tragedy’

Around 2:30pm, the Sheriff’s Office received calls of a stabbing at Aptos High. About 15 patrol cars from the Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol raced to establish a crime scene and shut down the entrance and exit from the campus at Freedom Boulevard. Hart said deputies found a boy suffering from multiple stab wounds near the campus’ swimming pool and that a deputy performed CPR until paramedics arrived. The school was put on lockdown as search teams combed the campus with guns drawn and a K9.

Central Fire set up a landing zone at the school baseball field where a CALSTAR rescue helicopter flew over the campus before landing in the outfield of the diamond. The victim was taken from the crime scene to the field by paramedics from American Medical Response and loaded into the helicopter before being taken to a trauma center outside of the county.

Aptos High remained on lockdown until about 5:30pm.

A huge logjam of traffic, mostly parents trying to pick up their children, lined up along Freedom Boulevard back to Highway 1, where a CHP officer grappled with traffic control. Near the entrance to the campus, a clutch of parents hugged one another, some in tears, as they yearned for information about the unfolding events. They took turns making frantic phone calls while trying to comfort one another.

About 25 people are assigned to the case, Hart said during a press conference later that night. He added that witnesses may have recorded the attack on their cell phones, and asked them to come forward. Witnesses, Hart said, would not face criminal charges.

By Sept. 7, more than 960 people had donated roughly $53,000 to a GoFundMe page set up to help the family of the victim defray funeral costs. The creator of the page wrote that she gained the family’s permission to “grieve their loss and have them not to worry about how they’re going to pay for upcoming bills and expenses.” The author wrote that the student was described as “a kind-hearted and respectful young man” by neighbors and family.

“Our hearts are heavy tonight as we mourn the death of our Aptos High student,” Rodriguez said. “This senseless tragedy is a loss for all of us who knew the student, his parents, his friends and our community but most importantly his family.”

The campus was closed for two days after the stabbing and all school activities were canceled. PVUSD offered grief counselors at Cabrillo College’s Aptos and Watsonville campuses. During the community forum on Sept. 2, Aptos High Principal Peggy Pughe said that school counselors also proactively reached out to students through phone and video calls and emails.

When students returned to campus on Sept. 3, there were two sheriff’s deputies on site. A deputy will also be on campus this week. It is unclear how long law enforcement will have a presence at the school after that.

Student Safety

The attack occurred nearly one year after the PVUSD board ended the district’s SRO program, which placed law enforcement officers on high school campuses. The district opted instead to shift the funds to social-emotional supports for students. At the time, numerous people urged the board to make the shift, reasoning among other things that the presence of law enforcement made students uncomfortable. Others said that a focus on law enforcement was the wrong approach to deal with students’ issues.

PVUSD Trustee Maria Orozco said the decision to end the SRO program was made after listening to community input. She says she stands by the decision to increase support services for students, and that there are no plans to shift that funding.

“We heard that loud and clear,” she says. “And even now, with the increase of the services that were provided to students, it’s still not enough.”

During the emergency meeting, the trustees and district officials will likely discuss how to fund the SRO program, should they elect to relaunch it. The program cost $405,265 annually for one Watsonville Police officer at Watsonville High School and another at Pajaro Valley High School, and one Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s deputy at Aptos High.

“For me, it’s always been about the safety and well-being of students, and I think it’s a conversation we need to have as a community,” Orozco says. “I don’t think we’re able to ignore what happened and the impact it’s having on everyone.”

WPD Interim Chief Thomas Sims says that, even if the district immediately funded the program, it would take around one year to bring the officers back, since they were reassigned and those positions were eliminated. That is unfortunate, Sims says, since many students said they liked the program and felt safer with an officer on campus. Many consulted the officers for law enforcement issues and guidance.

“There are so many positives that come from having an officer on campus,” he says. “It builds community, it builds relationships between officers and students.”

Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Ashley Keehn says that a deputy would be available to return to the Aptos High campus immediately, should PVUSD restore the SRO program. Sims stresses that WPD has a good relationship with PVUSD, and will support the district in whatever decision is made.

Sims says that, during the discussion last year to remove the officers, a small fraction of the community said the program is a “gateway to the prison system,” a notion he calls “silly.” SROs receive special training to work on school campuses, including implicit bias and de-escalation. They also conduct welfare checks and home visits and connect at-risk students to diversion programs.

“To take that away from the school system was unfortunate,” Sims says. “The presence of police officers prevents crime from happening. That is a fact. And everybody knows that.”

Hart several times throughout the Sept. 2 forum championed the program that had been at Aptos High for 22 years before last year’s decision. But when asked during the forum to present data that shows police presence keeps students safe, he referred to anecdotal experience and told attendees that there are several articles about the effectiveness of SROs.

“Here in Santa Cruz County, we’ve been in the schools for many, many years … and there hasn’t been any serious cases of violence like this,” he said. “Locally, we know it works.”

PVUSD Board President Jennifer Holm says the issue is a complex one, and that there are many different ways of looking at safety. She pointed out that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where in 2018 a shooter killed 17 people and injured 17 others, had an SRO on campus.

“When you have a senseless tragedy like this, it’s important to reevaluate and take another look,” she says.


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Tarmo Hannula
Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.
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