A screenshot of the leaders from Thursday's virtual meeting
A screenshot of the leaders from Thursday’s virtual meeting that focused on safety and security at Aptos High following Tuesday’s fatal stabbing.
(Grace Stetson)
K-12 Education

Aptos High tragedy: Campus police program back on table; sheriff says suspects have gang affiliation

On Tuesday afternoon, Aptos High School was locked down for nearly three hours after a student was fatally stabbed and two others were taken into custody in an attack officials said was gang-related. County and school leaders convened in a virtual community meeting Thursday to discuss safety measures for the school moving forward.

A virtual meeting on school safety measures, held just two days after a brutal and fatal attack at Aptos High School that left a 17-year-old student dead, left many unanswered questions for the hundreds of families and community members in attendance. But one firm answer emerged: The presence of school resource officers (SROs), eliminated by the district a year ago, is back on the table.

On Thursday evening, Pajaro Valley Unified School District officials including Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez and Board President Jennifer Holm and Aptos High Principal Peggy Pughe were joined by Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart for a virtual community meeting aimed at best addressing Tuesday’s attack and how the school hopes to increase security and wellness initiatives for students in coming weeks.

At present, Rodriguez said the district is focusing on an implementation of a six-week restorative start for the school year, an increase in staffing with social-emotional counselors and mental health clinicians, creation of family engagement and wellness centers, and expansion of community partnerships with organizations such as Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance and UC Santa Cruz.

“It’s important to understand the context of the district, and understand that this movement is providing us to support the safety of the schools through the social-emotional needs of the students,” she said.

Holm, a parent of two Aptos High graduates and one future Aptos High student, said she wholeheartedly agreed with a community member who described Tuesday’s tragedy as an inflection point: “We are at a crossroads in how we choose to move forward, and that crossroads has many options.”

Holm said the space the community is currently in differs greatly from that of July 2020, in the aftermath of nationwide police brutality protests, when the PVUSD board of trustees cut the SRO program for Aptos High School by a vote of 5-2. Now, Holm said she felt that the board and the community at large will have to consider if the answers of last summer still apply to the current need at Aptos High. The board will revisit the possibility of the SRO program in a special meeting on Sept. 15.

“We are not idle in the meantime — we are taking the safety of all of those on our campuses seriously,” she said. “If we can learn anything from the past 18 months in isolation, it’s that none of us exists completely in isolation. Everything we do affects one another.”

Since 2018, the district has increased the number of high school counselors, social-emotional counselors, mental health clinicians and school psychologists in its schools. The most stark difference in the 2021 school year has been the 180% increase in mental health clinicians since 2018.

Hart reiterates concern, confirms gang affiliation

The sheriff, who was critical of Aptos High doing away with the SRO program in conversation Wednesday with Lookout, reiterated those criticisms in the meeting. “I didn’t think we would ever see something like this on one of our school campuses in this county, but it happened, and we’re all affected by it,” Hart said.

Hart said he’s received many phone calls and emails from the public regarding the SRO program, with most in support of the program being reinstated.

The sheriff’s office has submitted paperwork to the Santa Cruz District Attorney’s office to file murder charges against the two teen suspects, ages 14 and 17. Hart said the two suspects were gang-involved, which will be part of the filing. In reviewing cellphone footage and YouTube videos over the past few days, Hart said he and his team have seen the increased violence on the school’s campus, and are very concerned.

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

In Hart’s opinion, Aptos High could further improve cellphone communications with families of students and perform code red training to eliminate situations like this from occurring in the future.

Pughe outlined the communication issues regarding this incident with students and families. After the stabbing was reported at 2:20 p.m., the school sent text and email notifications to parents, families and students at 2:49; yet, most families didn’t receive the notification until 3:31 p.m., and had to wait another 25 minutes for information on where to pick up their own students.

Immediate next steps

At present, Aptos High School follows ALICE training, which focuses on active shooter drills and preparedness solutions. Staff most recently reviewed the protocols last week.

Beginning Friday, the sheriff’s office will have two deputies on campus through the following week.

Santa Cruz City Schools district administrators and additional counselors will also be available for their students Friday.

Eric Ochoa, director of behavioral health at Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance, said counseling services have been made available for students and community members at Cabrillo College’s Aptos and Watsonville campuses, and those services will continue to be available next week.

Community donates $41,000 so far

A GoFundMe was created Wednesday in response to Tuesday’s tragic events, with the fundraiser collecting donations to help the victim’s family with funeral expenses. As of publication, the donations had already surpassed the $25,000 goal and were at $41,494.

Misty Navarro, an Aptos resident who donated $500, was empathic about this week’s events and said she felt compelled to help.

“I didn’t know the family, but as a mother of two and [working] in an emergency field, it hit close to home. I wanted to do something,” Navarro said.

Lookout’s Neil Strebig contributed to this report