Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart says he doesn’t understand the Pajaro Valley Unified School District’s decision to sever ties with his office. “I hear the advocates for defunding the police and about the school-to-prison pipeline,” he said, “but with this county, we know that’s not true.”
In the aftermath of Tuesday’s stabbing death of a student at Aptos High School that resulted in murder charges for two other students, Santa Cruz County’s top police officer is questioning whether the school was prepared to keep its students safe.
The Pajaro Valley School District severed its relationship with the sheriff’s office last year, resulting in the elimination of a school resource officer (SRO). PVUSD is the only district in the county that didn’t participate in code red training for the current school year.
MORE ON APTOS HIGH STABBING DEATH
“Unfortunately, they have indicated that they don’t want any interaction with law enforcement now, so — here we are,” Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart told Lookout on Wednesday.
On Wednesday, another PVUSD school faced a similar incident. A student from Cesar Chavez Middle School was arrested after she was involved in a confrontation with another student while armed with a knife.
Hart, a county native and father of four, reiterated his shock at the event as well as the horror and sadness felt by the family of the 17-year-old victim, an Aptos senior. The suspects in custody are a 14-year-old freshman and a 17-year-old senior.
“The No. 1 responsibility of local government is making sure that community members are safe, and I hope that’s the priority for schools as well,” he said. “For me, school safety is paramount — it’s upsetting and startling that this type of incident would occur at one of our local high schools.”
PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said in a statement Wednesday that safety measures are being increased immediately and that discussion over the SRO position will resume in a community meeting on Sept. 15.
“Beginning on Friday, September 3rd, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office will have deputies on campus at Aptos High School,” she wrote. “We have received an outpouring of concern around campus safety and will continue to listen and seek a model of staffing and support that is responsive to the needs of our community.”
The Thursday meeting will be “to update Aptos High School students, families and staff and provide information about what to expect in the upcoming days and weeks.” It will involve Hart, Aptos Principal Peggy Pughe, Eric Ochoa of Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance, PVUSD Board President Jennifer Holm and Rodriguez. Here’s the livestream link.
The PVUSD community forum will be held Tuesday at 6 p.m. That forum will be “to address our loss, the collective impact and the health and safety resources we have for our students, families, staff and community. Here’s the livestream link.
The district will also hold a special board meeting on Sept. 15 at 6 p.m. to discuss the presence of SROs within PVUSD.
“We know that when students, families and our community feel safe that they are able to engage and have a positive school experience,” Rodriguez wrote.
Hart said he believes there needs to be new safety protocols and implementations at the Aptos High campus. The campus is fairly isolated from the community, with only one way in and out, and has poor cell phone reception, which led to difficulty in communication between the deputies and 911 callers on Tuesday, he said.
Further, Hart believes the school needs to bring back the school resource officer program.
“It didn’t make sense to me at the time when they canceled it, it doesn’t make sense today — we have school resource officers at other schools throughout the county,” he said. “It’s my experience that the school resource officer program does increase the level of safety.”
With the SRO program, Hart said, there is no emphasis on arrests or school rules, and there are very limited juvenile arrests. Instead, the program is meant to emphasize building relationships and trust, and stopping problems before they start.
“I hear the advocates for defunding the police and about the school-to-prison pipeline, but with this county, we know that’s not true,” he said. “We emphasize working with juveniles and making sure they’re on the right path. When these programs are run correctly, they are actually very positive to have on campus.”
Rodriguez told Lookout on Wednesday that each PVUSD school has a safety plan in place with ALICE training, recommended for active shooter procedures. She commended AHS principal Pughe on her team’s response, and said she believes the school was able to implement the plans calmly and quickly.
While there has been some pushback regarding the lack of an SRO program, Rodriguez said she doesn’t necessarily believe a security officer would have helped in this specific incident. She noted that the victim and suspects were in a fairly isolated area, and said it would be hypothesizing and conjecture to assume an SRO would have helped to stop this tragedy.
“On Sept. 15, when we have a discussion with the board, it will be a discussion of now having more of that one-time funding that we didn’t have in June 2020,” she said, noting when the school board voted 5-2 to eliminate the SRO program. “Then, it was a question of where to put that funding, and we chose to do the social and emotional support.”
At least one Aptos High parent, however, agrees with Hart.
“I think there should be one,” Hanna Berglund said of a school safety officer. “Especially nowadays, with what goes on [in schools] like shootings and fights, there should definitely be one or two police officers on campus. I don’t know how many but there should definitely be one. It’s ridiculous that they took that off, and something needs to happen.”
New details on the case
Hart said his office, which has 25 people dedicated to the case, has discovered further information regarding Tuesday’s tragedy.
Deputies confirm the incident took place behind the old gymnasium at 2:20 p.m., approximately 100 yards away from where the victim was found at 2:28 p.m. near the swimming pool.
The victim was then life-flighted to Natividad Medical Center in Salinas, where he died late Tuesday.
Hart relayed in Tuesday evening’s news conference that there was likely video evidence of the attack, and asked the public to provide that footage as quickly as possible. The sheriff’s office received some videos following the news conference, and deputies are doing outreach for additional footage based on call-in tips.
The two suspects have been arrested, and the sheriff’s office will file a homicide charge with the district attorney’s office. The suspects will likely be arraigned by the end of the week.
Lookout’s Haneen Zain contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Natividad Medical Center was in Watsonville. We apologize for the error.