Officers stand guard outside of Aptos High School on Aug. 31.
Officers stand guard outside of Aptos High School on Aug. 31. A student was stabbed shortly after 2 p.m. and students and staff were put on lockdown.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

Lookout Exclusive: Sheriff confirms previous incident involving murder suspect in Aptos High stabbing

A previous incident involving one of the suspects in the Aptos High murder case has been confirmed by the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office. The Pajaro Valley Unified School District has not disclosed any information about that incident to the public — nor did it to the sheriff’s office prior to the killing of a 17-year-old student on Aug. 31.

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office confirmed to Lookout Wednesday that one of the suspects in the on-campus killing of an Aptos High School senior had been involved in another on-campus altercation weeks before the Aug. 31 fatality.

Further, the sheriff’s office said that the incident was not reported to them at the time by PVUSD. Lookout asked the agency to confirm the rumor, which had been circulating for days among the Aptos and Watsonville communities.

Between the start of the semester on Aug. 12 and the tragic events of Aug. 31, one of the stabbing suspects was involved in another incident on campus, according to Ashley Keehn, sheriff’s spokesperson. The office could not confirm which of the suspects — the 14-year-old or the 17-year-old — was involved.

Both were booked into the county’s juvenile hall on charges of murdering another 17-year-old student, identified only as Gerardo by a GoFundMe page that has so far raised $58,834 for the family. The Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office said Wednesday that the investigation is ongoing.

Pajaro Valley United School District Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez declined to comment about the earlier incident on Wednesday afternoon or to confirm whether the district took disciplinary actions against the suspected student for the prior incident, but sources told Lookout that the student received a two-day suspension and then returned to campus.

This information comes as the PVUSD board, during a meeting set for Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., plans to consider reinstating school resource officers (SROs) after the board voted to remove them from all district schools amid protests against police brutality and systemic racism in July 2020. Reinstating SROs will be among health and safety measures the board will discuss.

According to community leader Jaime Molina, who spoke at a vigil for the 17-year-old at Romo Park in downtown Watsonville and met with the grieving family in the days after the tragedy, there is video circulating of the earlier altercation.

Molina, who has worked with both the county and PVUSD on programs for deescalating tensions and bringing people together, said he knows what he hopes will come from Wednesday’s meeting.

“You expect people to take ownership, to take responsibility and to create, well, to begin with, a dialogue, to commit to the changes that need to be made. Because people are going to be listening,” he said. “What is it that you’re really going to do? We’ll see what really the response is going to be.”

According to Keehn, Aptos High didn’t notify the sheriff’s office about the previous incident.

The sheriff’s office is advocating for the reinstatement of SROs on campus because, Keehn said, these officers can help deescalate tensions that could be brewing among students.

Keehn emphasized the longtime relationship that ended in 2020: “We saw violence in the first three weeks that they didn’t have an SRO on campus.”

Other local organizations — such as PVUSD Students Deserve, a coalition of current and former PVUSD students from Watsonville — are advocating for instead bringing on more mental health services to avoid another tragedy, arguing that many students — especially those of color — don’t feel safe with SROs on campus.

“We hope that the community will stand with the students of PVUSD and advocate for alternatives that center students and keep our schools cop-free,” the coalition said in an Instagram post.

All community members who want to participate must attend the event in person at the Mello Center in Watsonville. The event will also be livestreamed here.