South Dade High School Principal Javier Perez is known for his signature bow ties, his accessibility to students and his love of sports.
But earlier this week, while coaching his 5-year-old son’s little league championship at Tamiami Park, Perez was suddenly struck by an SUV that veered off Southwest 117th Avenue. The injury was so serious that Perez’s legs ultimately had to be amputated.
The South Dade community is still in shock.
Students and staff have responded by rallying behind their 43-year-old principal, and showing an outpouring of love and support. A gofundme.com page dedicated to helping the Perez family with medical costs has raised more than $70,000. Students held a candelight vigil for Perez on Thursday night, and wore bow ties to honor him.
On Friday, school staff donned blue T-shirts that displayed the hashtag #prayforperez, which for days has been circulating on social media. South Dade junior Andrew Kirkland said Perez — a 20-year school district veteran — was “like a big brother” for students.
“If you ever had a problem, you could walk into the office, and he would help solve it,” Andrew said.
Miami-Dade police say they are still investigating the SUV crash, and so far, no charges have been filed against the driver, 51-year-old Marilyn Aguilera. Aguilera’s traffic history is far from unblemished. Records show she was issued 14 tickets between 2007 and 2013, for everything from not having proper insurance to improperly backing up.
She has also twice been cited for knowingly driving with a suspended license; in one case, Aguilera beat the charge, in another case, she received a “withhold of adjudication,” meaning it did not count count as a conviction.
Miami-Dade Police Det. Robin Pinkard said that police are still investigating what caused Aguilera to lose control of the vehicle, a Silver GMC Envoy. More details should become public in coming weeks, Pinkard said.
Aguilera could not be reached for comment. The SUV crash has proved traumatic not only for the South Dade High School community, but also for the parents and children who take part in the “Diamond Dreams” little league at Tamiami Park — many of whom saw the shocking accident happen right on the baseball field.
As South Dade’s principal, Perez was strict but got results: He enforced the uniform policy and increased security, students said. They said Perez — who arrived at South Dade three years ago — ultimately improved the school’s atmosphere.
“Before he came, it was wild,” said Boman Swanson, a senior. “He settled it way down. He turned the school into a better school.”
A Cuban native who came to the United States at age 7, Perez played baseball in high school and also at Florida Memorial College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education. He started his Miami-Dade Schools career in 1996 as a P.E. teacher at Phyllis R. Miller Elementary. From there, he rose to assistant principal, and worked at multiple schools, including Miami Edison Senior High School.
Perez’s time at Edison included an incident where some students accused him of manhandling a student. Students then organized a protest that turned chaotic, with at least 10 police officers and six students injured. After Edison, Perez continued to rise through the ranks, becoming principal at Miami Springs Middle School, and then at South Dade.
Miami-Dade School Board member Larry Feldman, whose district includes Homestead, said he has known Perez for at least 15 years — a relationship that began when Feldman was still a school district administrator himself. Feldman said Perez developed a family-like relationship with his students.
“Here’s a guy who does hug, and he is making a personal attempt at every single kid to connect,” Feldman said. “That’s the kind of guy that Javier Perez is, he builds that culture of family, he builds that culture of love and responsibility to each other.”
Feldman called it a “beautiful thing” to witness the strong support from students during this difficult time for Perez.
“He was a real person, and he took his job very seriously, Feldman said. “And that included being father to everyone, being brother to some, being mentor to others. You don’t see that everywhere.”