A Sheriff car parked in front of Aptos High.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

No credible threat in school-violence ‘challenge,’ but one middle school student is arrested

Santa Cruz officials say there were “no verified or credible threats” identified amid a social media trend that encouraged users to call in shooting or bomb threats to schools Friday. However, a student who allegedly made a threat at a middle school in Watsonville was arrested in the afternoon.

Santa Cruz County law enforcement agencies and school districts said they were aware of a social media “challenge” urging students to call in threats of violence Friday to disrupt classes, and later in the afternoon Watsonville police arrested a middle school student who they say made a threat.

“Early on in the investigation, officers determined the threats to be unsubstantiated...[But] we must take these types of threats seriously,” the department said via statement on its website. “We ask parents to take the time to sit down with their kids and explain to them the severity of making fake social media threats and to keep tabs on their social media activity.”

Meanwhile other entities around the county were also staying closely attuned.

“There is no indication of any threat to a Santa Cruz County school,” the county office of education wrote in a letter sent to parents ahead of Friday’s last day of classes in 2021. “However, we take these rumors very seriously. We are in close communication with law enforcement, who have assigned extra resources out of an abundance of caution.”

Emphasizing the usual “if you see something, say something” guidance, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office and police departments in Watsonville and Santa Cruz released statements about the situation, with all three urging parents and guardians to keep a close eye on their children.

“We are urging parents to monitor their children’s social media use since these threats can often originate on social media,” the sheriff’s office wrote on Facebook. “This includes, but is not limited to TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.”

Ben Benavidez, principal at Cesar Chavez Middle School in Watsonville, wrote in a letter to parents that police and Pajaro Valley Unified School District officials determined that a social media post threatening a shooting at the school Friday was related to the challenge and “the campus is believed to be safe.”

“Increased security measures including presence of law enforcement and additional safety support will be in place,” Benavidez wrote.

Watsonville Police announced Friday that a student had been arrested. In a statement on their website, WPD said:

“After receiving reports about last night’s threat on Instagram, our Watsonville High School Resource Officer immediately began coordinating with Pajaro Valley Unified School District officials to create a safety plan for schools within the city. Part of the plan called for additional police presence at schools throughout the city.

Ofc. Johnson also began working with our detectives to track down the origin of the threats. Together, Johnson and our detectives were able to identify a PVUSD student as the person who made the threats. The student was arrested this afternoon for making criminal threats.”

School officials in Santa Cruz were taking similar precautions Friday morning.

“We’re working with law enforcement to be prepared for today, but thus far we haven’t dealt with any threats or issues,” Santa Cruz City Schools spokesperson Sam Rolens told Lookout’s Hillary Ojeda on Friday. “All year there have been escalating TikTok prank ‘challenges.’ Some of these show up at our schools and some don’t (mainly our bathrooms have taken a real beating this year due to some ‘destruction’ challenges). We will always take any threats made seriously either way.

“I haven’t heard too much concern from parents,” he added. “For now, we’re not anticipating any issues but we’re prepared to handle something if it comes up.”

The latest disruptive social media challenge comes just weeks after a Nov. 30 shooting that left four dead at a Michigan high school.