‘Sweet, goofball kid’ under ‘tough veneer’: 16-year-old Montgomery High stabbing victim remembered

Montgomery senior Harley Rodgers expressed concern that the public might mistake Jayden Jess Pienta as “just some punk who went and jumped somebody, and that’s not who he was. It’s really not.”|

How to help

Jason Windus, a family friend, launched a GoFundMe page for Jayden Pienta’s family. To donate, go to bit.ly/3Yj3VZN.

Gathered around an ever-expanding makeshift memorial late Thursday afternoon outside Montgomery High School, several people stood, tearfully embracing. They were members of the family of Jayden Jess Pienta, the 16-year-old who was killed in a stabbing on the campus the previous day.

That sad tableau stood in stark contrast to the crowd that had gathered at the school earlier in the morning for a prayer walk — or the smaller group that congregated in the afternoon to release red and white balloons with written messages of love for Pienta.

The teenager was killed after bursting into a classroom with another boy and starting a fight with a 15-year-old freshman. Police are investigating the history between the students that led to the attack.

Montgomery senior Harley Rodgers expressed concern that the public might mistake Pienta as “just some punk who went and jumped somebody, and that’s not who he was. It’s really not.”

Earlier in the day, a group of Pienta's close friends had hugged each other, wiped away tears and brought flowers and pictures to honor him. Among them was Olivia Cruz, who identified herself as one of his best friends since kindergarten. She recalled his pure and beautiful soul.

“He was always happy,” Cruz said. “He was always smiling. He could have the worst day of his life and he would still come around his friends and be so happy. He was the most beautiful person I’ve known in my entire life.

“He was a genuine person who cares.”

But as the crowd dwindled, the grief seemed to hang heavier on Pienta’s family members, as the full scope of their loss became clearer.

Muffled sobs could be heard over the rustle of leaves as relatives embraced. Others took turns walking around the memorial set up at the flagpole, looking at photos of a younger Pienta.

Pienta’s father, Travis Pienta, stopped in front of a large photo of his son at 13 years old dressed in his baseball uniform and flashing a large smile.

That boy in the photo is who former teachers, coaches and friends recalled Thursday.

In interviews with The Press Democrat and statements made to other news outlets, those who knew the teenager described him as a kind kid who enjoyed sports and goofing off with friends.

Sweet kid under ‘tough veneer’

Pienta and his older brother, Dustin, went to middle school at Rincon Valley Charter-Matanzas, which attracted a lot of students who “don’t fit in at traditional middle schools,” said Rachel Lumberg, a behavioral specialist for the Rincon Valley Unified School District. She also volunteered as coach of the middle school’s co-ed flag football team.

A former college soccer player, Lumberg also loves gridiron football — “the concept, the design, the chess play of it.”

She tried to pass that passion onto her players, with mixed results. Lumberg wasn’t sure Pienta was going to fall for flag football — really commit to it — until the day he showed for a game, she recalled with laughter, and a few tears, with all of the team’s offensive plays written on both forearms.

“It was so endearing, here was this kid, I wasn’t sure I could get him hooked on the sport, and he shows up with Magic Marker all over his arms,” she said.

Pienta was a running back on offense. On defense, said his coach, “I put him at linebacker, so he could rush the quarterback.”

Like a lot of middle school kids, she recalled, “Jayden had a tough veneer. But when you cracked it, he was just a sweet, goofball kid.”

He had a generous, encouraging side, added Lumberg, who recalled that one of Pienta’s teammates was a girl whose family had recently immigrated from Mexico. She had no clue what was happening on the gridiron.

“And Jayden was super encouraging to her, it was really nice to see. He had a really empathetic, sportsmanlike approach to supporting her.”

“Jayden was a quiet boy, a sweet boy,” recalled Harmony Harvell, who was Pienta’s assistant principal and history teacher at the charter school.

She recalled that he was a stylish dresser who liked his “bling.”

He loved sports, said Harvell. “He was a goofball. He was well liked by his friend group.”

Smiling, eager to please

Sheila Salinas was Pienta’s kindergarten teacher at Spring Creek Elementary School. After she heard the news of his death, a colleague shared with her his class picture from that year.

“I went right back to him sitting on my rug with a smile on his face, just the sweetest little thing you could imagine,” she recalled.

“My memory is of him sitting there, listening to stories, being that kid with a smile, eager, ready to please, always wanting to be a helper.

“The other thing I remember distinctly is that he was the boy everyone wanted to be friends with. ‘I want to sit with Jayden!’ Some kids just have that charisma or personality. That’s how I remember him.”

His passing, she said, is “just heartbreaking all around. I’m heartbroken for everyone involved.”

Pienta’s grandmother, Cheryl Griffith, described him as “kindhearted” in an interview with KTVU Fox 2.

“He was a good boy, kindhearted, sweet, loving, gentle,” she said, remarks echoed by his grandfather, Harry Edwards, to KCBS Radio.

Tom Lenwell, Pienta’s stepfather, told KTVU that he would miss joking around with Pienta.

“I’m hurt, you know, sad,” Lenwell said. “I’m never going to get to see Jayden again, you know, I’m not going to get to laugh and joke with him no more. Those days are gone.”

Mall hi-jinx

Some of his favorite memories with Pienta, recounted Montgomery student Cameron Gonzalez, happened at the mall, where he said even the security guards recognized them.

As middle school students, Gonzalez, Pienta and other friends used to throw dollar bills off the balcony as people were passing under them.

“I would ask my mom for money and then we would give it to people,” Gonzalez said, laughing as he recounted the memory. “We would tell them that it was raining money.”

“He would really enjoy doing that for some reason, just throwing money off the balcony with us,” he added.

Outside Montgomery High Thursday morning, sophomore Jackson Hals sat somberly on a bench near Pienta’s memorial.

They’d gone to elementary and middle school together. Hals recalled Pienta’s obsession with basketball and the camaraderie they enjoyed playing football together.

“He was a good guy and we had a good bond in elementary and middle school, but we didn’t talk much in high school,” Hals said. “Now I’m sitting there thinking ‘He’s gone – the friend I kind of grew up with in school -- he’s gone.’”

Staff Writer Alana Minkler and Madison Smalstig contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

How to help

Jason Windus, a family friend, launched a GoFundMe page for Jayden Pienta’s family. To donate, go to bit.ly/3Yj3VZN.

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