APTOS—Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said during a community forum Thursday night that the two suspects who stabbed their 17-year-old classmate to death on Tuesday at Aptos High School were “gang-involved,” and that they will likely face gang enhancement charges from the District Attorney’s office Friday.
Hart’s comments came during a virtual meeting organized by Pajaro Valley Unified School District administration in response to the unprecedented attack.
Hart also said that one of the students facing charges was involved in a fight about two weeks ago. The suspects are 14 and 17 years old.
PVUSD Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Instruction Kristen Shouse declined to comment on the issue, saying that strict privacy laws protect minors.
“We are not able to comment on a minor’s school records and do not have access to legal files that may or may not exist with law enforcement for any student,” she said in a message via Zoom.
PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said that the student had “intervention” at the school, but did not elaborate.
Hart said that investigators have reviewed video evidence taken at the school, and have found increased violence and fights in the days before the attack.
“It’s very concerning, and it’s so imperative that this violence stops and that students can attend school safely,” he said.
To help improve safety, Hart called for the district to purchase equipment that would improve cell phone coverage at Aptos High, saying there were several dropped calls during the incident.
He also called for the district to reestablish its School Resource Officer program, which the PVUSD board voted to eliminate last year. He says that Soquel and San Lorenzo Valley high schools, which have an SRO, have had no major incidents of violence.
The PVUSD board plans to hold a special meeting on Sept. 15, during which it will consider reversing its decision to eliminate the SRO program.
Hart several times throughout the forum championed the program that had been at Aptos High for 22 years before last year’s decision. But when asked during the question and answer portion of the forum to present data that shows police presence keeps students safe, he referred to anecdotal experience and told attendees that there are several articles about the effectiveness of SROs.
“Having the presence of a deputy sheriff would help restore a level of order on the Aptos High campus,” he said.
Aptos High Principal Peggy Pughe said that when students returned to campus Friday after a two-day closure, they would see increased supervision by school staff and district administration. Hart said two sheriff deputies would be on campus, and a deputy would also be on campus next week.
Rodriguez said that, since 2018, the district has increased its ranks of high school counselors, in addition to socio-emotional counselors, mental health clinicians and school psychologists, all as a way to address students’ changing and complex needs.
In addition, the district is creating family engagements and wellness centers throughout the district, which will provide medical and mental needs. The first is slated for E.A. Hall Middle School in December, but one will also be placed in the Aptos region, Rodriguez said.