Two separate threats of violence were allegedly directed at Torrey Pines High School last week, resulting in two juveniles being arrested and taken to San Diego Juvenile Hall Detention Facility. In the first case, a 14-year-old TPHS freshman was taken into custody on Feb. 22 after allegedly making verbal and written threats. In the second case, a 17-year-old former TPHS student allegedly made verbal threats as the school day winded down on Friday, Feb. 23.
At a press briefing held at the San Diego Police Department’s Northwestern Division on Feb. 26, Acting Captain Paul Phillips said both crimes are considered felonies and investigations continue although it is not believed that the incidents are connected or that the juveniles even knew each other.
In both cases, the juveniles’ residences were searched and no firearms were found. The juveniles’ cell phones and computers were taken for further analysis.
“We take every threat seriously as you can imagine with things going on throughout the nation,” Phillips said. “It is a case by case basis but we want to let everybody know, including students that are thinking about making these threats: We take this seriously. We’ve got between Thursday and Friday two kids who went to juvenile hall over this. There is no wasting of time, we don’t put this on the back burner. We respond right away.”
Thursday’s incident involved both verbal and social media threats while Friday’s “multiple” threats of a school shooting were just verbal although SDPD continues to investigate, Phillips said.
With the Thursday incident, concerned Torrey Pines students first alerted the administration of the potential threat, which was allegedly directed at a pep rally that was to be held at the school on Friday afternoon, Feb. 23.
“As we always do in situations like this, we worked cooperatively with the San Diego Police Department to investigate the threat,” Principal Rob Coppo said. “The police contacted the student off-campus. At no time were our students or school in danger.”
Officers were able to make contact with the juvenile at his home for questioning around noon on Feb. 22. During the preliminary investigation it was determined that the juvenile had committed the crime of 422 PC “Criminal Threats,” and he was then detained and transported to San Diego Juvenile Hall Detention Facility.
After hearing of the second threat on Friday, the juvenile services team again responded right away. Phillips gave special kudos to Detective Sergeant Wes Albers who was on his way to Legoland with his kids on his day off—Albers turned around to begin work on the case immediately, identifying the subject who made the threats and, within two hours, he was taken into custody.
“We’re not messing around on this stuff. We take it very seriously,” Phillips said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep your kids safe.”
Many parents opted not to send their children to school last Friday, Feb. 23, although there was an increased police presence—two SDPD cars were parked in the main quad of the campus.
“As the parent of two high school students, I share your concerns and I know what it is like to send my kids to school every day and wonder what they might face,” Coppo wrote in a message to parents. He said his children have been involved in four campus lockdowns in the last two years. “As the principal of Torrey Pines High School, I want you to know that school safety is my number one priority.”
The threats at Torrey Pines are among 15 such threats to San Diego County high schools since the Feb. 14 shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Fla. The first threat occurred on Feb. 19 at High Tech High and the latest occurred on Monday, Feb. 26 at Rancho Bernardo High School when students and staff arrived after the weekend to find graffitied threats on campus walls.
Student safety has been a focus at Torrey Pines following an incident in May 2017 in which a 15-year-old Torrey Pines student armed with a BB gun was fatally shot by San Diego police officers in the campus parking lot on an early weekend morning after he called 911. A suicide note was found in his pocket.
The Feb. 22 incident is the second time this school year that students have alerted administration to a possible threat—on Nov. 16 students reported that a fellow student was in possession of a BB gun on campus. In that case, staff and the SDPD were able to intervene quickly and the incident was resolved.
Torrey Pines’ Thursday, Feb, 22, threat came on an already challenging week for the Torrey Pines campus, as just days earlier a senior student had committed suicide. The student’s death was not confirmed until Tuesday, Feb. 20, through the family, and students were able to take advantage of extra counselors brought to campus on Wednesday, Feb. 21.
“I thought I was proud of our students last year and I’m even more proud of them this year,” said Coppo, noting that the students have handled the tragedies with a mix of emotions but have worked to come together as the school aims to create a more connected campus.
At basketball games last week, the student sections of both the Falcons and their opponents wore yellow for suicide awareness.
In addition to the focus on a united campus, the school has also emphasized “See Something, Say Something” and Coppo said the students have really responded to it following last year’s tragedy. Because of that, he said that the administration has been able to intervene more quickly with situations, although he could not say for privacy reasons whether the student who made the threats or the student they lost had undergone such interventions.
“The most positive thing to come out of our tragedy last year is the students’ willingness to come talk to us. They understand that they’re not ratting someone out, they get it now,” Coppo said. “They trust that we will handle the information and respond quickly. I’m incredibly proud of the honesty they have with us and with each other.”
Both Coppo and Phillips remarked on the great working relationship between the school and the police department. Phillips said the department has a positive rapport with not just the staff but the students as well.
“They are responsive, supportive, intelligent and hard-working,” Coppo said of the police. “They are so accommodating to our needs, it’s been impressive. I’m so happy with the work SDPD has done, they’ve been phenomenal.”
Last week, many Torrey Pines parents expressed frustration with how and when they were notified about the threat situations and the “ambiguous” information that was provided. Some said they learned about the threats from TV news before they heard from the district.
“When our principals notify families of an incident or concern on campus, we report factual information,” San Dieguito Union High School Superintendent Eric Dill wrote in a message to parents, noting that if there is a delay it is because they are working to confirm details. “We recognize that rumors or conjecture do nothing to assure the community and can only spread more fear and confusion. We must also balance student privacy with the need to inform and assure our community without compromising or interfering with ongoing law enforcement investigations.”
Parent Rita Macdonald said she and her son were not assured by the superintendent’s message or that the school has a relationship with the police.
“The last time I checked, relationships and talking to police does not stop a bullet from flying. That’s kind of wordless in my opinion,” Macdonald said.
She wondered if the district might consider more defensive options to mitigate risks such as armed guards, metal detectors, reconfiguring the campus’ entry points or having a zero tolerance policy that would permanently remove any student who makes threats.
Macdonald suggested that the district hold a town hall-type meeting at each of its campuses, to listen to what parents and, more importantly, students want in terms of safety.
“The students’ voice is extremely important and they should be listened to,” Macdonald said. “Students should be able to speak because it’s their lives that are at stake.”
According to Superintendent Dill’s message to parents, the SDUHSD board authorized the issuance and use of bond funds for the purpose of improving the physical safety of all schools. The district has hired experts to conduct thorough risk assessments of each school to evaluate the needs and priorities at each of the district’s unique campuses, the message said.
Through this assessment, Dill said they hope to upgrade physical security features such as fencing, door hardware and surveillance.
“Even with these resources, we are reminded that our efforts in providing safe and supportive schools are ongoing and must remain our top priority,” Dill wrote. "’See something, say something’," works.”
Phillips reiterated that public safety is a shared responsibility.
“If there’s a parent out there who maybe hears something from their child, don’t assume that we know. Please let us know,” Phillips said. “We do not need another tragedy.”
Anyone with any information regarding these cases is asked to contact CrimeStoppers at (888) 580-8477.
Another resource for students is Students Speaking Out — go to studentsspeakingout.org to make an anonymous phone, text or web tip about dangerous activity or crime at school or in the community.