March 29, 2023

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — A Northern California school district heard concerns about campus safety Tuesday from students, parents, teachers and community members in the wake of a fatal stabbing at a high school, a day after the teenage suspect made his first appearance in court.

The 15-year-old freshman fatally stabbed one classmate and injured another last week in self-defense during a fight inside a classroom, prosecutors said. The attack stunned Santa Rosa, a city of about 175,000 residents in wine country 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of San Francisco.

The violence has prompted student protests and increased police presence at the Montgomery High School campus. The school district held a “listening session” Tuesday evening as detectives continued to investigate what prompted the initial fight.

Students took turns on the microphone, calling for increased access to counselors and describing the fear they felt when the campus was locked down.

“It’s a really tough time right now. Going to school is tough. It feels surreal,” Montgomery High student Joey Bowser told the crowd of a few hundred people gathered at an events center near downtown Santa Rosa.

Another teen said the school district needs to do a better job communicating with students and parents about campus threats.

The student speakers were followed by parents and educators, including a teacher who urged administrators to focus resources on the most vulnerable kids struggling to cope with the violence.

Although the teen stabbing suspect was initially booked on felony charges of homicide, attempted homicide and having a weapon on a school campus last week, prosecutors instead brought a manslaughter charge because the teen appeared to be acting in self-defense, the Press Democrat reported. Still, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office says the slaying was not justified under state law.

The freshman appeared in court Monday on one count of voluntary manslaughter with an enhancement for the use of a knife and one count of bringing a knife onto school grounds, the DA’s office said. The teen remains in jail and is due to return to court Friday for a detention hearing.

“There was some action taken on the part of the victim that did mitigate the actions by the minor that we charged, but that we concluded did not rise to the level of complete self-defense,” Sonoma County Assistant District Attorney Brian Staebell said.

Police say the altercation began when two groups of students were arguing last Wednesday outside an art classroom. Once inside, a 16-year-old junior from one of the groups confronted the freshman in the other group as more than two dozen students watched.

A fight broke out, and the freshman stabbed the 16-year-old with a knife at least three times, Santa Rosa police said. The 16-year-old, Jayden Jess Pienta, later died.

School officials broke up the fight, but the freshman got into another brawl with a different 16-year-old junior and stabbed him once in the hand, authorities said. The freshman fled and was later found hiding in a creek bed. Police have not determined what caused the students to fight originally.

“We are still investigating the motive, but we have no significant previous criminal contacts with any of the students involved in this incident,” Santa Rosa police Sgt. Chris Mahurin said Tuesday in an email. “We are working to get school records and determine if (this) school had addressed issues between these students. We do not have those records yet.”

Under state law, prosecutors cannot try anyone under the age of 16 as an adult, however, proceedings for certain crimes — including homicide — perpetrated by juveniles must be held in open court.

The teen’s attorney, the school district and the Montgomery High principal did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday. The Associated Press is not identifying the teenager because he is a juvenile.

About 200 students protested Monday during a walkout, saying they do not feel that school officials have done enough to address their safety on campus.

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