‘I just couldn’t breathe’: Santa Cruz High students, parents describe emotions in wake of active shooter hoax

Two people share an embrace at Depot Park after Santa Cruz High students were bused there
Two people share an embrace at Depot Park after Santa Cruz High students were bused there Thursday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz High School families are breathing a sigh of relief after receiving confirmation that an active shooter alert on campus Thursday was a hoax. While the call was a false report, it left the community grateful for public safety responders and stressed about the well-being of their children.

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At first, Santa Cruz High School junior Natalia Espinosa thought the announcement she heard over a loudspeaker about a lockdown was just a drill.

“But then they said it was a ‘code red,’” Espinosa recalled. “Then, I was like, ‘Dang, this is real.’”

First, she texted her sister, a freshman at the same school, to make sure she was all right.

“She said that she was OK,” said Espinosa. “And that she was just texting everyone as well.”

Espinosa, like many Santa Cruz High students and parents, felt a wide range of emotions Thursday when they learned the Santa Cruz Police Department received an alert about an active shooter on the school’s campus at around 9:30 a.m.

After an extensive, hourslong search of the school, Santa Cruz police said there was no active shooter, no one was injured and the report was a hoax.

However, upon receiving the initial alerts Thursday morning — along with rumors of injured students that later turned out to be false — parents and guardians jumped into their cars to drive to the school and students texted their siblings and friends to make sure they were all right. They spent hours locked in classrooms waiting for confirmation that the incident was all clear.

Espinosa also checked with members of her basketball team — who she said are all like a family. She said she was in touch with family members and friends at other schools, who were also checking on her.

“I felt loved,” she said.

Family members wait at Depot Park to be reunited with Santa Cruz High students
Family members wait at Depot Park to be reunited with Santa Cruz High students.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Bryan Barrios, a junior at the high school, said he panicked a little and then told himself the announcement of an active shooter was, he hoped, just a false report.

While the report was for Santa Cruz High, police asked the Santa Cruz City Schools district to lock down all schools to be extra cautious. Barrios heard that Mission Hill Middle School, which one of his siblings attends, was also under lock down. “I just quickly texted them, called them and just texted my other friends to see if they were OK,” he said.

Barrios’s 8-year-old brother told him he was a little scared and was already safe at home.

Students who were in the library, in classrooms or in the wood shop described feeling confused, stressed or relatively calm. Some helped barricade classroom doors. Some sent photos to their parents.

“I was in auto shop,” said Chris Radovan, a junior at Harbor High School. Students often take courses at different schools.

“It was very hectic, there was a lot of conflicting information,” he said. “I was stressed out.”

He said students in the auto shop had a police radio and that’s how he first heard about the alert.

Moments afterward, they heard an announcement on the school’s public-address system and barricaded the door as they waited for the police to arrive. Radovan said being able to listen to the radio eventually helped ease some anxiety.

“I think it was good that we had the radio on — that we knew what was going on,” he said. “I think that definitely helped settle everybody.”

Parents and guardians wait to see their kids

In the meantime, parents and guardians were rushing to the school, looking online for news and frantically exchanging phone calls and texts with others in the community.

Natasha Telfer's son is a junior at Santa Cruz High School.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz


“So, I saw ‘Santa Cruz active shooter.’ I jumped in my car,” said parent Natasha Telfer. “I just couldn’t breathe.”

She drove to the school to make sure her son, Ben Dotten, a junior at Santa Cruz High, was OK.

And somehow I got up there with all the cops. So I just saw all these, like, hundreds of cops running in with huge rifles, and no one really told me what was going on,” she said. “But I was getting all this horrible information online.”

Her son told her that he was in a safe spot and that plenty of officers were around him and his classmates. That helped Telfer feel better.

At about 10:15 a.m., the school district sent an email to parents saying that police had been investigating the report and there was no active shooter and there had been no incidents of violence.

But in the 45 minutes or so between the first reports of an active shooter and the district’s email that the reports were most likely false, rumors and misinformation had already spread. Some parents said they had heard that six people had been shot or injured.

That, along with not being able to see their kids, left guardians and parents stressed and very concerned for their children’s safety.

“It takes a while to calm your nervous system down,” said Telfer, adding that this kind of incident shouldn’t be occurring.

“This shouldn’t even be a thing that we’re thinking about — that shouldn’t even be like we’re taking a threat like this seriously because kids shouldn’t be able to access these kinds of weapons,” she said. “It just makes me so angry.”

Andrea Parker’s son Yeelen, 14, had been home-schooled until he started ninth grade at Santa Cruz High School this year.

He was already nervous about enrolling in a large public school, in part because of concerns about school shootings. Parker said she wasn’t sure if her son would want to continue his studies at the high school.

“He’s already kind of anxious about this stuff, so I don’t know if he’ll go again, to tell you the truth, which is sad because it’s good for him,” she said.

Students released, unite with parents and guardians

At about noon, the first school bus full of students arrived at Depot Park, where parents and guardians eagerly waited to pick up their kids.

Felix Gonzalez-Sack, a 17-year-old senior at Santa Cruz High, was one of the first students to get dropped off at the park. He was in a wood shop class when the school announced the “code red.”

“Everyone in that class was OK,” he said. “None of us were panicking, which was good. But there was a lot of confusion as to what was going on. And that made some people uneasy.”

When he finally got to Depot Park and saw his dad, he was cleared to be released. He exited the gated field, approached his dad and they hugged tightly.

Mental health resources

County Superintendent of School Faris Sabbah said trained clinicians would be on the Santa Cruz High campus Friday to support students and staff.

“We want to get kids back in school and in a supportive learning environment as quickly as possible,” he said.

Mental health clinicians were also at Depot Park providing support and assessing students for any signs of distress.

For more resources:

  • Suicide Prevention of the Central Coast

Primary phone: 877-663-5433

24-hour multilingual suicide crisis line: 831-458-5300

Other services: Grief support for survivors of suicide loss, suicide prevention outreach, and education for the community.

  • Emergency Services: 911

In the event of an emergency concerning mental health, call 911. Alert the dispatcher there is a mental health issue involved. Law enforcement has a mental health professional who will accompany the officers.

  • Santa Cruz County Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services

800-952-2335 or 831-454-4900 (Access Team)

1400 Emeline Ave., Santa Cruz 95060

Available 24 hours a day to all Santa Cruz County children to assess for hospitalization in a psychiatric crisis.


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