Two high school students involved in a highly controversial zero tolerance case will not be expelled, according to a statement released late Friday night from the Escondido Union High School District (EUHSD).
The case, involving two San Pasqual High School students who were found to have knives in their cars -- cars that were parked on the high school campus -- was being investigated by the Escondido Police Department (EPD), police said Friday. On Saturday afternoon, the EPD confirmed police would not be pursuing charges against the students.
The much-talked-about case fired up fellow students and parents this week.
On Jan. 27, a detection dog alerted officials at San Pasqual High School the cars of two students parked on school grounds – vehicles driven by 16-year-old Sam Serrato and 18-year-old Brandon Cappelletti. The dog detected Advil in one of the cars, leading officials to further investigate.
According to EPD Lt. Ed Varso, an Escondido Police School Resource Officer (SRO) was called to the lot, and the students were also summoned to their cars.
School officials then began searching the students’ vehicles. Inside Serrato’s car, school officials found one knife. In Cappelletti’s car, three knives were discovered.
The students’ mothers were called to the school. With the mothers present, the SRO interviewed both students.
The EPD said Serrato told the SRO that he, with his parents’ knowledge, had purchased the knife – which had a 3.5-inch locking blade – about 10 days prior, for his own personal protection. The juvenile told the officer he had been leaving the knife inside his car parked on school grounds every day since he bought it, the EPD said.
Meanwhile, during Cappelletti’s interview, he told the officer the knives were left in his car following a weekend fishing trip with his family.
Ultimately, the SRO found that both students were in violation of a misdemeanor crime by bringing the knives onto school property.
Due to his age, Serrato’s case was recommended for San Diego's Juvenile Diversion program, which addresses crimes by minors without the case being heard through the formal juvenile court process.
However Cappelletti, being 18, is considered an adult and was not deemed eligible for the diversion program. He was issued a misdemeanor citation and released at the school to his mother.
Both students were suspended from school over the incident. They also faced expulsion.
The students' punishment in the zero tolerance case, which some considered severe, quickly gained attention in the North County.
Earlier this week, hundreds of community members rallied behind Serrato at a school board meeting, asking for his suspension to be lifted.
According to the teen’s family, the entire ordeal is one big misunderstanding.
Serrato’s family said the knife found inside the high school junior’s car belongs to his father, who had purchased it at a swap meet. The father said he and his son had forgotten about it.
The teen’s family and supporters said Serrato is an honor roll student and active athlete, and has never before gotten into trouble at school.
At the EUHSD board meeting, his mother, Yvonne Serrato, said her son’s punishment isn’t fair. Tearfully, she said the ordeal has changed her son's demeanor in just a matter of weeks.
Cappelletti’s family also attended that board meeting and stood behind his statement that the knives were used for a fishing trip.
Legally, board members said they’re required to follow due process, so nothing could be done at that point. Board members also said they did not have all of the information yet on the students’ cases, as the investigation continued.
A spokesperson for the EUHSD issued this statement Wednesday in relation to the cases: "EUHSD staff will be working directly with the families and other parties involved to help ensure the two current cases involving San Pasqual High School students are handled according to the framework established by the California legislature."
Due to high interest in Serrato’s case, his expulsion hearing was moved up to Friday from its original Feb. 25 date. Cappelletti's hearing was also set for Friday.
NBC 7 was at Friday's expulsion hearing and, when it was over, Serrato came out feeling optimistic.
"We told our story, they heard us out," Serrato told reporters. "I'm pretty thankful for them listening and I think it went pretty well."
The EUHSD has three school days to make a decision on the student's case. Due to President's Day, school is not in session Monday or Tuesday.
The school board planned another meeting for Tuesday night. At that meeting, the board said members could recommend the students not be expelled. If that recommendation is approved, the teens could be back in school by as early as Wednesday.
Serrato said the stressful process has taught him some tough life lessons.
"It's taught me how to deal with certain things in life, so hopefully this is a learning process," the teen said, his father's comforting hand resting on his shoulder.
"How to just deal with life; how life isn't always fair," he lamented. "Hopefully, it's over soon."
Cappelletti also hoped the worst was over.
"I'm excited to go and finish my high school and then hoepfully after this report to the Marine Corps and serve for this country," he told reporters following his hearing.
At 9 p.m. Friday, the EUHSD superintendent confirmed Serrato and Cappelletti would "both be returning to school following expulsion hearings."
No further details were immediately released from the school district.
The EPD released a statement just before 1:30 p.m. Saturday confirming that after a review of the Serrato’s and Cappelletti’s cases, police have decided not to submit the cases to the District Attorney’s office of to the Juvenile Diversion program.
“No charges will be pursued in the case against Brandon Cappelletti and Sam Serrato,” the police department said.
The EPD said cases like this, in which a weapon is brought onto school property, “must always be taken seriously” and “warrant a thorough investigation by school officials and law enforcement.”
“The administrative investigation conducted by school officials, as well as the criminal investigation conducted by law enforcement will include looking into all of the facts and circumstances that led to a weapon ending up on a school campus. Both investigative processes worked as designed; as is evidenced by the appropriate conclusion in the cases involving Sam Serrato and Brandon Cappelletti,” the EPD added.
The EPD and EUHSD said they want to remind all students and parents that bringing any weapon onto school property will be investigated in a serious manner, as was this case.