Probe continues in Capitola school threats case

A New Brighton Middle School student arrives on campus Monday to find a police presence after several students made a shooting threat on social media over the weekend. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel)

By Steven Baxter, Santa Cruz Sentinel

As rumors swirled among New Brighton Middle School students and parents about the weekend online shooting threat and potential discipline for five students involved in it, Capitola police scoured the students’ cellphones and tablets for more information Tuesday.

Soquel Union High School District Superintendent Henry Castaniada said police continued to share information with school leaders about the investigation while district officials work to see if the California Education Code was violated. The ed code addresses threats and “electronic acts” as grounds for suspension or expulsion.

The threatening Instagram message that sparked the arrest of five students was sent to about seven students in a group, not to the victims, the principal or hundreds of users. The messages identified a teacher and four students, police said. The kids involved — four 13-year-olds and a 12-year-old — admitted to the conversation, but called it a hoax, police said.

Those familiar with the messages say they started as an innocent conversation, but were directed toward threats of violence by one of the five kids involved. None of the kids have been identified because they are juveniles. Unlike adult cases, juvenile court cases and arrests generally are not public record.

Tuesday, at least three of the five were released from Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall, according to family friends, though the DA’s Office declined to confirm that.

Barbara Rizzieri, a Santa Cruz County assistant district attorney handling the case, declined to comment on whether the students will be charged. She said the burden of proof for the two felony charges is the same for adults as minors.

She declined to answer whether the boy who focused the message toward violence would be prosecuted separately from the others or at all.

“I can’t discuss anything,” Rizzieri said.

Police were alerted to the weekend Instagram messages Sunday by two sources. One came from a parent who told a Capitola police officer, who then reported it to his supervisor, Police Chief Rudy Escalante said. Shortly thereafter, the school’s principal notified police that a parent of one of the five students had notified him about the messages as well.

Detectives spent Sunday investigating, securing cooperation from the parents to search the kids rooms and from school officials to search their lockers and the campus. At least two weapons were taken from the home of one of the boys. Both were registered and in a safe and were turned over to police voluntarily.

In consultation with the Santa Cruz County District Attorney’s Office, Capitola police arrested the five students beginning late Sunday and ending around 2 a.m. Monday. They were arrested on suspicion of felony threats and felony conspiracy, police said.

It’s unclear whether the students will be charged with the crimes they were arrested for.

Escalante said forensics in the case have not been completed, but declined to discuss details given the case involves juveniles.

Parents from the school appeared divided on if and how the students should be punished.

A woman close to one of the children identified in the Instagram private messages said the boy who steered the conversation toward a threatening dialogue has made threatening comments to students in the past and that written complaints were made about him to school officials.

Other parents described some of the boys as popular, saying they play sports and are on the honor roll. Some said the kids could be bullies without realizing it.

Before social media existed, adolescents might have talked about violent acts amongst themselves. Now, writing it online has raised the stakes.

Escalante, the police chief, said parents should talk to their children about appropriate behavior on social media and the potential consequences of making threats.

“First off, have that conversation,” Escalante said, don’t leave it to the kids to make that judgment or the schools to teach social media etiquette.

Mark Conley, a New Brighton parent, said young teens are still learning how to interact socially and shouldn’t be held to adult standards.

“Most adults don’t understand the nuances, the do’s and don’ts, of social media, so how is it these 13-year-olds should have?” Conley asked.

“You don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. And that’s what 13-year-old boys are: babies.”

Meanwhile, Castaniada said attendance was good Tuesday, and counselors are available for students shaken up by the threat.

“Being safe is our No. 1 priority,” said Castaniada.

He said the school’s potential discipline against the students is separate from their juvenile criminal case.

“Social media has created just a different challenge for us,” Castaniada said. “We’re talking to our attorneys, and there is not a lot of court history.”

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