The Santa Barbara and Goleta communities were hit hard with the news of a brutal homicide Monday night, in which four people were killed in the family home just a few blocks from Foothill Elementary School.
Nicolas Etienne Holzer, 45, has been charged with four counts of murder after allegedly stabbing his parents and two young sons to death.
The Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department confirmed the victims as William Holzer, 73, Sheila Holzer, 74, Sebastian Holzer, 13 and Vincent Holzer, 10.
While the entire community is reeling from this mass murder, which Sheriff Bill Brown notes is the second in three months, the Goleta Union School District and Santa Barbara Unified School District communities are mourning the loss of their students.
“Unfortunately, this horrific event has touched the Foothill community deeply,” said Bill Banning, superintendent of Goleta Union.
Both Sebastian and Vincent attended Foothill starting in kindergarten. Sebastian graduated from sixth grade in June 2013 and was about to start eighth grade at La Colina Junior High School this month.
Vincent was going to start fifth grade at Foothill.
Tuesday night was, coincidentally, the last night Foothill Elementary’s library was open for summer evening hours.
Principal Bridget Braney, Banning and district psychologists went to the school to talk with parents and students, and will arrange for additional counseling for those who need it.
Braney and her office manager called all school staff members on Tuesday to make sure they were aware of what happened, Banning said.
For the La Colina community, principal David Ortiz had to make those calls Tuesday night.
“This is right in the heart,” he said Wednesday.
“Universally, as I talked to teachers of Sebastian’s from last year, each described him as a very caring, sensitive, caring individual fully engaged in class and in school,” he said.
Sebastian was very social and friendly, as well as being a high achiever with a 3.8 grade-point-average and fantastic attendance record, his teachers said.
He participated in AVID — Advancement Via Individual Determination — and his teacher, Rebecca Lowi, had some words to share about her former student. She wasn’t ready to speak publicly but offered her comments through district communications director Barbara Keyani.
“He was a very upbeat, sweet boy,” Lowi said. “He had a big smile, and I don’t know a day that Sebastian was in a cranky mood. He was easygoing, mellow and friendly. He got along with girls and the girls liked him, and the guys liked him.”
Sebastian was described as a “peacemaker” who never had conflict with others.
“He was always friendly and upbeat, with a smile that I’ll always remember,” Lowi said.
Keyani said the news sent shock waves through the entire school community.
“Yesterday was a tough day for all of us,” she said.
Santa Barbara Unified is notifying all parents of incoming seventh- and eighth-graders at La Colina with letters home and phone calls on Wednesday, and has counselors available starting now.
“These feelings will never go away, but right now as a community we have to hit it as hard as we can,” Ortiz said.
The district is reaching out to families, staff members and community members.
“One of the concerns that we’ve had in the past is we have this outpouring of support for our children, and too often we forget the support we need as adults,” Ortiz said.
There are counselors available this week at the campus from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and anyone who wants to arrange to see a counselor next week can call the office secretary at 805.967.4506.
When school starts Aug. 27, there will be a new phase of outreach and support, Ortiz said. There will eventually be a memorial ceremony on campus.
“This is a loss and now we have to remember Sebastian, his little brother, his grandparents and his other family and friends – which we have to research, because the contact information we had was them.”
The incident is a “grim reminder” of the importance of relationships and educators getting to know every child at school and ask the hard questions – whether something is wrong, Ortiz said.
“You never know when you’re going to pick up on something,” he said. “Know your kids. Anything that we can do – and certainly again what it reinforced in me, and I think all of us, you never know. You never know. And it’s really a very sad story.”
The district is also distributing information from the National Association of School Psychologists about how to identify trauma in children, which parents and educators can refer to.
“The way kids grieve and respond to trauma can really vary significantly based on the student,” said Lauren Meier, a special education program facilitator for the district who helps with behavioral and mental health needs.
It’s about listening to what children say and asking if things seem off, she said.
“That intuition piece is always important.”
It’s also important for people not to blame themselves in a situation like this, but to do what they can to always ask questions, she said.
Any sudden change in a child’s normal patterns would be something to ask questions about, such as altered eating or sleeping habits, or general behavior. Not all children or adults react or communicate the same way, Meier noted.
Just call one of the resources available, even if you’re not sure it’s a crisis or emergency, she said.
Santa Barbara County’s Department of Alcohol, Drugs and Mental Health Services has also offered to make mental health professionals available for schools and community members.
“We urge everyone in our community to help prevent future tragedies,” said Dr. Takasha Wada, interim director of ADMHS. “If you observe a change in behavior in a family member, friend, student or co-worker, please talk with them and encourage them to seek help.”
The ADMHS Access Line for alcohol, drug and mental health services is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week by calling 888.868.1649.
There will be free counseling available to any community members affected by the killings at designated compassion centers located at both Foothill Elementary School and La Colina Junior High School Thursday and Friday from 10 a.m. to noon, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and then 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
ADMHS staff also refer parents and teachers to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network resource about talking to children about mass violence, which can be found by clicking here.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1.800.273.8255.