Five juvenile females rob Standard Liquor in Los Altos
Examining the actions of LHS and MVHS seniors and teen alcohol usage in our school community
On Tuesday, Sept. 15 at around 8:30 p.m., five juvenile females stole approximately $80 worth of alcohol from Standard Liquor, located in downtown Los Altos. According to Detective Sergeant Cameron Shearer from the Los Altos Police Department, they received multiple anonymous online tips in the three to four days following the incident. After identification, the five girls were “interviewed and arrested and released on citations. The case [has been] forwarded to the juvenile court system, and they set up either a court date or a restitution, … that can involve community service.”
Due to the suspects being juveniles, identities have been officially undisclosed, but consensus among community members is that they are high school seniors at Lynbrook HS and MVHS — security camera footage displays one of them wearing an MVHS hoodie.
The girls were called into the Los Altos police station for approximately an hour each, and in cases like these, their parents are contacted and may accompany them, as well as a lawyer, if desired. Shearer says that the PD receives frequent cases of teen shoplifting, but cases involving teens shoplifting alcohol specifically or teen alcohol abuse in general are sparser. He cites approximately 4-5 cases per year of such incidents.
Owner of Standard Liquor, Ramana Srirama, details his account of the incident. When the girls entered the store, Srirama was helping a regular customer. He says the security camera did not capture them entering the store, since it was located at a blindspot. However, it does display the group discussing in a huddle and then grabbing a 12-pack of Seltzer, 6-pack of hard cider and 1 gallon of vodka. After doing so, they walked out, which caught Srirama’s attention as he noticed that they hadn’t paid. Srirama proceeded to follow them to their car, planning to ask them to return the alcohol.
When he arrived at the parking lot behind his store, three of the girls were in the car while two of them weren’t inside the vehicle yet. He recalls approaching them to say, “This is not the right thing to do.” He says he felt shocked when the remaining two girls got into the car, both pushed and kicked him down through the open door and promptly drove away. Srirama says he felt panicked, and that the entire exchange took place in under a minute. He then went back inside the store and called 911.
“I called 911 … [and] I was taking one customer’s help [to explain] the address,” Srirama said. “I was completely shocked. My voice was not clear at the time, so that’s when the 911 dispatcher was asking me, ‘Do you need paramedics? Do you need the ambulance?’ I got a bruise on the shoulder. I got hurt, but I said, ‘OK, I am fine, I can handle this pain.’ I mean, [they were] kids — I was not mentally at all prepared. I thought, I’ve seen some of the adults. They come and then try to steal [and] I say this is not the right thing to do. They leave [and] that’s it. Here they were not listening at all.”
Srirama has been the owner of Standard Liquor for the last four years, and says that shoplifting is relatively common, dealing with approximately 10-15 cases during his time as owner. He has dealt with one instance of stealing, but this is the first instance of robbery that he has encountered — he classifies this incident as robbery due to the physical force involved.
He distinguishes the three — shoplifting, stealing, robbery — by explaining that shoplifting occurs when people conceal items under their clothing or in their pockets and leave. When he catches people doing so, he asks them to pay and is usually met with comments such as ‘I forgot to pay’ or ‘I thought I already paid.’ When he discovers these through security camera footage, if they return to the store, he explains to them that they are no longer welcome and allowed to shop there. As for stealing and robbery, he believes that they tend to be more aggressive in nature.
“For every mistake, right next to the mistake, there is [an] opportunity to fix the problem,” Srirama said. “If you fail to take it, that one mistake becomes kind of a bigger mistake. It becomes a crime. So if they had listened to my words saying that it’s not the right thing to do [and to] put back everything, it [wouldn’t] blow up in this particular way. It doesn’t become a crime — it’s minor shoplifting. So don’t try to run away from the problem. Take the problem, whatever you created, [and] fix the problem. That’s all it is.”
Srirama adds that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his business has been impacted. The store can’t function like it used to, and traffic has decreased significantly. He worries that future customers will stray away from his store due to this incident, which may exacerbate the store’s decreased business.
However, he adds that the community has been supportive of him. He initially offered a $1,000 reward for individuals to help identify the suspects, but says many individuals gave him and the police department anonymous tips without needing the monetary incentive. Additionally, he says that an MVHS male student — Srirama did not ask for his name, so the student is unidentified — came into his store a couple days after the incident and apologized on behalf of the MVHS suspects. He says that the student felt bad about what had occurred, and Srirama felt it was compassionate of him to actually come into the store.
“He came forward,” Srirama said. “His parents, I think, pooled some money and they came to the store. I told him it’s not about the damage, it’s the values. We have to respect other people and other businesses, other establishments and other work, what their livelihoods are. I’m a 52-year-old guy. So we don’t know what [might happen] if you push the guy on the ground, right? That’s not fair, it’s not just the money factor. They need to know the consequences, that’s what I truly believe.”
MVHS Principal Ben Clausnizer says that although the Los Altos PD did not contact MVHS administration about the incident, he did hear about the incident through security camera footage, as well as the publicity that the event has received. With his background as a long-time educator, Clausnitzer says that teen alcohol usage is not unique to this incident specifically. In the past, he has gotten involved in situations with students using alcohol on school campuses.
Clausnitzer says that each case is unique and situational; for instance, consequences depend on whether the alcohol is being consumed by just the students involved, whether it’s being supplied or sold to other people or whether the case is a repeat incident.
“Alcohol use [or] in possession on campus would certainly include things like suspension, and so consequences in that way could include the law enforcement, and then obviously, home consequences” Clausnitzer said. “It can include all of those things from a school site, it could be license suspension, and it depends on the situation, right? But at the end of the day, even though there are consequences at school levels, I think as educators, what we want students to know after everything is done, is that we don’t think less of our students. People make mistakes.”
Clausnitzer says that he can’t speak to the impact that others are feeling, due to not being directly involved, but recognizes that repercussions stretch beyond involvement with law enforcement, school administrations and parents. He says there’s also potentially the world of publicity, and the consequences for the perpetrators that can emerge from that. For instance, in this specific case, publicity due to the store and the Los Altos PD putting out information and word-of-mouth can result in the situation being amplified through mediums like social media.
One Instagram account, @nochilllhs, has played a role in spreading the news of the liquor store robbery throughout the FUHSD community. The account posts memes about events related to Lynbrook High School, and it was started by a group of eight MVHS and eight LHS students who were seeking to identify suspects involved in the incident from security camera footage.
A different Instagram user had also posted footage of the robbery on their personal account, but they took the post down after they were doxxed and received a threat. This instance influenced the moderators of @nochilllhs to create an entirely new Instagram account dedicated solely to anonymously spread awareness of community events using humor.
“I don’t think [the event] would have gotten as widely popularized [without social media],” one of the account moderators said. “It’s coming from kind of an obscure news source, not anything big, just the Los Altos Talon … When we were discussing this, we were talking about all of the meme potential, so we just fired [the meme potential] up.”
The owners of @nochilllhs took a lighthearted approach toward the robbery and the suspects involved, hoping to inform the community about the incident. However, Anonymous (who will not be identified in this article due to privacy and safety concerns), who is familiar with suspects from the incident, notes the impact that increased social media publicity may have on the suspects involved.
“I think social media is going to force them to look at themselves a lot more because they’re constantly bombarded with ‘This is you’ and ‘This is you’ and ‘This is you,’” Anonymous said. “As for whether they deserve it, I don’t know … ultimately, if it does help them understand how harmful [alleged] assault is, then yes. But if they can just look at social media, numb themselves to it and be like, ‘Oh, haha, funny,’ it’s not really helpful at all.”
Instead of focusing on the alleged robbery as an isolated event and vilifying the perpetrators, Anonymous shares that they have witnessed shoplifting and alcohol usage quite commonly among teenagers, but turning the incident into one involving physical force crosses a line.
“Underage drinking and shoplifting are very common among teenagers,” Anonymous said. “You know, it’s boring during quarantine. You’ve got to do something edgy and fun. There’s adrenaline, you get [stuff] for free and you don’t have to spend your own money. I’ve shoplifted before too, but assault is not [OK].”
Anonymous notes that they hope the girls will be honest with their parents and themselves moving forward, and that they will understand the weight of their actions. Anonymous also points to other underlying issues that must have motivated their behavior, a sentiment echoed by Clausnitzer, who believes that it’s important to delve into the root causes of why teenagers are motivated to engage in behaviors such as alcohol usage. He speculates that some root causes may include a desire to seem “cool” or more likable to peers, self-medicating with alcohol, shifting hormones at the adolescent age and several other possibilities.
“As an administrator, we’re not licensed therapists, [and] we’re also not medical professionals,” Clausnitzer said. “So that’s where we’ve got to be able to use our resources and communicate with the student and the parent and get them to the right folks who can make those assessments and get them the help they need. Oftentimes, these situations, that’s where we use our school-based therapists, somebody like Mr. Prinz [can help] … At that point, we’ve got to trust in those other professionals, and the medical professional might even be somebody off-site and their own personal physician, so I think our role in it is maybe not necessarily trying to identify that root cause, but getting [students] to people who can help identify those root causes and get them the help they need.”
Clausnitzer says that when viewing teen alcohol abuse in general through an educator lens, it’s important for him that students who may be struggling seek help. For instance, he cites not only on-campus counselors, but also communities such as the Alum Rock Counseling Center, a partner of FUHSD. Some programs within this center focus on teaching skills such as general decision-making, while others are more specifically about problems like teen alcohol abuse.
“There’s different levels of need, because somebody might need help working with an expert in that world, maybe once, or maybe four or five sessions,” Clausnitzer said. “Somebody else might need it for 10 sessions. I do know that it’s kind of based on assessment, so there’s times where a school site might be in conversation, with students and parents working with our district office. And this person might meet with the family and the students and assess the situation, and then tell us, ‘Hey, this is what I think the student needs.’”
Additionally, Clausnitzer emphasizes seeking help through any possible avenue, even going through routes such as helplines — general mental health helplines like 1-800-273-TALK, as well as alcohol abuse helplines like 1-800-622-HELP. Rather than placing blame and judgement, he believes that it is important for school communities to recognize that there’s a deeper aspect to making mistakes and facing consequences for those mistakes — the community should remember that there’s always a ‘why’ behind those mistakes.
“I suppose there’s many different reasons why things occur, whether it’s teenagers pushing boundaries, or self medicating, or it’s addiction, peer pressure,” Clausnitzer said. “There are many different factors and I think, from us as educators, we take these things from more of an educational standpoint, maybe more of a therapeutic standpoint, in the context [that] if somebody is doing these things, they’re clearly not 21. They’re breaking the law, and it’s probably a symptom of something. And what is that root cause? And can we work with the student and the family to get them the help that they really need, depending on which root cause that is and get them to the right person?”