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Aptos High School Homecoming Tempered By Stress And Grief

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Scott Cohn
/
KAZU News
Aptos High School students are still dealing with the trauma of a fatal stabbing on campus on Aug. 31

This is Homecoming Week at Aptos High School, with activities including a parade, a dance, dress-up days, and a football game on Friday night versus Seaside. But this year’s celebrations are tempered as the school community still struggles to come to grips with the stabbing on campus Aug. 31 that left a 17-year-old student dead and two other students, aged 14 and 17, charged with his murder.

“There’s definitely no script on how to personally deal with the grief when a traumatic moment like that happens,” Aptos High School Athletic Director Travis Fox told KAZU. “It’s a balance to try and continue to grieve and continue to live with the grief and the trauma that that we experienced and we're living through, and also continue with life.”

Part of that balance was on display at the first home football game following the stabbing, Sept. 10.

Along with the traditional trappings of a high school football game — the band, cheerleaders, and the beloved Snack Shack — there was a moment of silence before the game. And at halftime, the school’s spirit squads skipped their traditional routines. Instead, each member placed a flower in the chain link fence behind the home team bench.

Fox said the tributes were the students’ idea.

“Resiliency is a word that pops right into my head,” he said.

Authorities have not released the names of the two students charged since both are juveniles. The victim, identified in an online fundraising drive only as “Gerardo,” was just beginning his senior year at the school of around 1,500 students.

His death added another level of stress for students, who were already readjusting to in-person learning after more than a year of remote study because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a shock to their world, the pandemic,” Fox said. “And then it was another shock to the system coming back for in-person instruction.”

Few age groups have felt the emotional effects of the pandemic more than students. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental health-related visits to hospital emergency rooms by adolescents aged 14 to 17 rose 31% during the first six months of the pandemic.  

Multiple high-profile violent incidents at schools along the Central Coast have accompanied the return of in-person instruction. Less than 24 hours after the stabbing in Aptos, a 13-year-old student at Cesar Chavez Middle School in Watsonville was arrested after allegedly pulling a knife on another student in an unrelated incident. There have also been reports of racial tensions at high schools in Pacific Grove and Salinas.

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Scott Cohn
At a home football game on Sept. 10, the Aptos High School Spirit Squads placed flowers in the chain-link fence in memory of a student slain on campus.

It is impossible to tell whether any of the incidents are consequences of the elevated levels of stress at school. And Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District — which includes some 19,000 students at 34 schools including Aptos, Watsonville and Pajaro Valley High Schools — said the number of physical altercations up to this point in the school year is roughly in line with the level before the pandemic.

Even so, she said, the district had already taken extra steps to prepare for this school year, including adding staff. The district hired an additional academic counselor plus five mental health clinicians over the summer, with another clinician to be hired by the end of this year, all to help deal with the stress that has built up among students the past 18 months.

“You had the challenge of the pandemic and feeling isolated, and then, in some cases, you had that on top of the economic issues because of a loss of job from their parents. So that's causing stress and strain,” Rodriguez said.

Some of the stresses are more basic, Fox noted. Following a year of remote instruction, half the student body is experiencing high school in person for the first time.

“Our entire ninth grade and 10th grade class was not on campus last year,” he said. “This is their first time here on the high school campus. And with that, there’s those learned behaviors that need to be retaught and reinstituted.”

Adding the shock from the death of a well-known senior on campus just weeks into the school year has created enormous challenges for students and teachers alike.

Rodriguez said the district’s response is to emphasize consistency, while recognizing that no two students will process these events the same way.

“When you have students that are in trauma, one of the things that they need is dependency, consistency, to be able to rely on something,” she said. “And so, we want to definitely recognize that our students are in a spectrum of their healing, and everyone heals differently.”

The stabbing came during what the district called a “restorative start” to the school year—a three-week program that was less about academics than it was about getting students used to learning in person again.

“Every student was intended to go through six different lessons in three focus areas of belonging, identity and agency,” Rodriguez said.

The three-week timetable for the restorative start has been thrown off now. And there are other changes. Following public outcry after the stabbing, the PVUSD board agreed to return School Resources Officers, or SROs, on campus at Aptos and Watsonville, though district officials say there is conflicting data about whether the police presence is effective in curbing violence.

Other measures under consideration, according to a staff presentation to the school board on Sept. 15, include more surveillance cameras and improved communication, including better cellular coverage on campus.

Just as important, Fox said, is trying to make school feel normal again.

“We’re trying to attempt to get back to those traditional ebbs and flows of a school campus, but in no way does it feel normal just yet,” he said. “I’m hoping that we can get to a point where we can say this feels normal. But even then, it could be the new normal.”

In that Sept. 10 football game, Aptos pulled off a dramatic win, beating Palma 47-45 with two touchdowns in the final minute. The hope is that the come-from-behind victory becomes a metaphor for the rest of the school year.