Elite and renowned Saratoga High School has been shamed by the arrests this week of three students accused of sexually assaulting former classmate and suicide victim Audrie Pott, 15.
The normally busy campus was eerily quiet Friday afternoon when the bell rung and about 1,400 students exited the school in what seemed like a flash, dodging several television crews with reporters hungry for a story that went viral nationwide in a matter of hours on Thursday.
Two assistant principals, who declined to be identified, told this editor that all questions about the student's Sept. 10, 2012 suicide and the arrest of the 16-year-old boys were being referred to Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District Superintendent Bob Mistele.
Friday was also the last day before spring break for students, who seemed relieved that they wouldn't be around until April 22 to once again face the media circus.
"Why are you guys here?" yelled one student to a reporter from a moving car as it exited the school's parking lot on Herriman Avenue.
Students Are Arrested, Superintendent Mistele Responds
Santa Clara County sheriff's deputies entered the school with search warrants at about 11 a.m. Thursday, according to witnesses.
Two youth at SHS and one at Christopher High School in Gilroy were taken into custody on two counts of sexual battery—one felony and one misdemeanor—and one additional count of possession and distribution of harmful matter depicting the victim, which is a felony, said Santa Clara County sheriff's Sgt. spokesman Jose Cardoza.
Sheriff's investigators were aided in their probe about the sexual assault by Saratoga High School resource officers. The deputies, who are not being named, began interviewing students and asking questions soon after the girl committed suicide in Los Altos, 2012, Cardoza said.
Los Gatos Saratoga Union High School District Superintendent Bob Mistele released the following statement Friday about the tragedy:
“Our sympathies go out to all of the families affected by this tragic situation. We are cooperating with law enforcement as they continue to look into the details of this case.
"Collaborating with our parents, students, staff and community we will continue to work diligently to maintain a positive climate at our high schools based on respect, responsibility, and open communication that discourages cyberbullying and inappropriate conduct."
Who Knew About Alleged Sexual Assault?
"No one told us anything ... we thought she had family troubles. No one heard about the Internet cyberbullying stuff," said a janitor in a golf cart who declined to be identified. "Nobody knew the full story."
When the suicide happened in September of 2012, counselors came to the school and did their best to help the grieving, mostly sophomores, he said.
Seniors and juniors interviewed Friday, on condition of anonymity, said only a few students knew Audrie Pott well enough to tell the story of the sexual assault and the subsequent sharing of an inappropriate image on the Internet.
"We're shocked and it's kind of depressing," said one girl.
Another student said there were a lot of rumors circulating around campus after she committed suicide and nobody knew why she had taken her life.
"We wish we could have done something, but there was no way for us to know what was happening," said another student. "Since we didn't know much about it, we obviously weren't expecting this. I'm just disappointed in the poor decision making of those three boys."
Reaction in Saratoga Village
At the gas station on the corner of Highway 9 and Big Basin Way, an elderly woman, who also declined to be identified, said "It's a horrendous thing what they have done."
Betty Hirth, a mother of three boys who went to Saratoga schools, said she was surprised and shocked with the news.
"The entire scenario ... that type of behavior is not what I associate with the children that I knew in the school system when my children were going to school here," she said. "You hear about [this] in general in communities and you never think of stuff like that going on here ... No community is safe or insulated enough from the social media and the disintegration or values."
Hirth said the case was about children assaulting another child and then trying to get publicity for themselves by sharing the images over the Internet. "That's not really the Saratoga that I knew," Hirth said.
Audrie Pott's Family Responds
A press conference is planned for Monday, April 15 by Audrie's parents, Lawrence and Sheila Pott, and step-mother Lisa Pott. The location of the event wasn't known as of Friday afternoon, according to Ed Vasquez, a spokesman for the Corsiglia, McMahon and Allard San Jose personal injury law firm.
A lawsuit is under consideration by the family, Vasquez said. "We're still investigating," he said, pleading with parents and students at the school to come forward if they have any information about what happened.
"We know there are parents who may have heard what happened. We would like for the parents to have an honest discussion with their children and get them to come forward. Tell them that there's honor in coming forward, that they won't be seen as a snitch ... We want parents to talk to their kids and to let us know what's going on. Let this family know what's going on."
In attendance at the press conference will be her parents, Allard and another personal injury and child molestation attorney. "The parents are looking for answers. They want to find out what happened," he said.
Vasquez stressed any legal action taken by the parents will be to bring the youth to justice and try them as adults.
Juveniles and the Law
When juveniles are arrested the law doesn't allow the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office to release specifics of the cases with the public, including the media.
Juvenile cases are confidential because the system is meant to rehabilitate them, along with punishment and holding them accountable for their actions, said Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Jaron Shipp, a member of the Juvenile Justice Unit.
"We want them to be rehabilitated so they can be able to go on and lead productive lives," he said. "Often the victims are juveniles."
Unlike an adult case that allows any member of the public to search the criminal records in the court system, juvenile court records are protected, Shipp added.
The juveniles' charging documents and court file are in the juvenile division of the Santa Clara County Superior Court. The information is only shared with the probation department, the prosecutors and defense attorneys.
When Are Minors Tried in Adult Court?
When a juvenile case comes to the DA's Office, prosecutors make a determination about whether the minors can be tried in adult court, making the records and their identities public.
There are three different ways for the prosecution to make that determination, Shipp explained. The first, and most simple way, he said, is to direct-file the case with the adult court. California law, for example, says in the case of premeditated murder, even if the suspect is 15 years old, he or she must be tried in adult court.
However, with other types of crimes such as second-degree murder, juveniles can be recommended to be tried in adult court.
About 30 cases are eligible for trial in adult court, he said, including forcible sexual assault. Prosecutors in that situation can deem it serious and sophisticated, and a "fitness" hearing is conducted.
Prosecutors appear before a juvenile judge and argue that the minor is not fit to be prosecuted in a juvenile court, but instead should go to adult court, Shipp said.
The third way to try a minor as an adult is to again conduct the "fitness" hearing, with the distinction that it may not be one of the 30 crimes listed by the Legislature. Prosecutors would argue the crime is serious and sophisticated for the minor to be prosecuted in adult court.
With the latter, the burden of proof is on the prosecution to convince the judge that the crime is serious enough to warrant trial as an adult.
Shipp said the juvenile justice team, which includes supervisors, prosecutors and even the DA, makes that determination. "The District Attorney's Office makes all decisions independently from parents. We're certainly sensitive to the thoughts of parents. We're sensitive to all victims and we listen to them, but we make the determination," he said.
Once the case is transferred to adult court, the youth would be named and their criminal records would be made available, he added.
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