Quick Take:

Melissa Schilling says incidents like one in which fellow students told her son, who is Black, that they didn’t like “his kind of hair” and gave him a haircut made the 14-year-old feel unsafe at school — a sentiment echoed by half of Black students in one Santa Cruz County survey. As in many places across the U.S., “we’re also seeing big behaviors on campuses — aggressive behaviors more than ever before,” the county superintendent says.

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Melissa Schilling thought everything was going well for her son as he started his first year at Aptos Junior High School — until the end of January, when she had to pull her child out of eighth grade because of concerns for his safety.

First, on Jan. 20, she said several students told her 14-year-old they didn’t like “his kind of hair” and gave him a haircut at school — an act she feels was racist bullying because her son is Black. Then, on Jan. 23 and Jan. 24, she was called by school administrators telling her to pick him up early because of planned fights.

Finally, on Feb. 1, her son told her he was forced off his bike on his way home from school and bullied into fighting other students — and a video of the altercation was posted on social media.

“It’s Black History Month, and to have this happen … [as] we look back at civil rights and on the history of police brutality against Black men,” she said. “I’m just feeling like we should know better, and do better. And we’re not. It’s disappointing and disheartening.”

After weeks of trying to make things work at Aptos Junior High, her son told her he doesn’t want to go to school there anymore. He’s now attending an alternative school run by the Santa Cruz County Office of Education. (Lookout is choosing not to name Schilling’s son for his safety.)

Schilling said her son told her he hates going to school and — mirroring data for Black students across the county’s schools overall — doesn’t feel safe there. From 2017 to 2019 — the most recent year for which data is available on the COE website — the percentage of Black students who reported feeling unsafe at school shot up from 21% to 50% — higher than any other demographic group.

The Pajaro Valley Unified School District’s 2022 Youth Trust Summary found that students across the district’s elementary, middle and high schools reported fewer positive responses to the statement “I feel safe at school” than in the year prior. In 2021, 67% of middle school students had positive responses compared to 55% of students in 2022.

Aptos Junior High School.
Aptos Junior High School. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Reports of bullying are not unique to Aptos Junior High, or to Santa Cruz County. Schools across the United States have seen rising reports of mental health crises, outbursts, bullying and aggression over the past several years.

County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah said that while he couldn’t comment on this specific case, area schools are grappling with many of the same issues as those across the country, with reports of mental health crises and bullying increasing in recent years.

“I think that as we have seen increases in students experiencing higher incidents of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation, we’re also seeing big behaviors on campuses — aggressive behaviors more than ever before — and bullying is part of that,” he said.

In response, he said, school districts have hired additional mental health counselors for their campuses and are working to ramp up mental health support in schools.

The County Office of Education recently announced $1 million in federal funding toward building two wellness centers focused on providing direct services to students. The COE is also launching an initiative in partnership with several local organizations to offer training to adults and youth in mental health first aid and other supports to help families access services to help struggling students.

In the case of the incident involving Schilling’s son, a trustee on the district’s board, Kim De Serpa, said earlier this month that the district was “appropriately dealing with the situation.”

The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office also investigated the fight and said it had forwarded the information about the incident to Juvenile Probation. “We investigated a report of a fight that occurred off campus between several individuals, but after a thorough investigation, reviewing evidence and witness statements there was no conclusion of a crime at this time,” said sheriff’s office spokesperson Ashley Keehn.

After the Feb. 1 incident, Schilling said officials provided a safety plan for her son and the other students involved in the altercation to sign. The safety plan prohibited the students from interacting with each other in person and virtually. But her son continued to struggle and tell her he felt unsafe, she said.

She last met with district administrators on Feb. 16 to discuss what could be done to help her son feel safe.

In an email to district officials the day after the meeting, she asked that the school add more adult supervision on campus — including when students are arriving at or leaving school — and that it install security cameras, make school counselors available more than one day a week, integrate anti-racist curriculum on campus and provide deescalation training for the principal and assistant principal.

In addition, she asked if students who are identified as bullies could be kept in a separate monitored area during breaks and pickup and dropoff times.

Schilling doesn’t think Aptos Junior is any different from other schools in that it’s a school with dedicated staff and teachers trying to address major challenges. However, she ays the issue of bullying needs to be addressed differently.

“I do think the principal and the vice principal really care about students. I do think they’re really hard working and trying the best that they can,” she said. “And, ultimately, they’re short-staffed and dealing with some students who may be walking a tough road, and are bringing that trauma to school.”

Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah
Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

PVUSD spokesperson Alicia Jimenez declined to comment on the specifics of Schilling’s son’s experiences or confirm details of what Schilling requested from the district and how the district responded to her.

“Our student safety is of utmost importance,” she said. “At this time, the incidents you are referring to are under investigation and we are not able to comment.”

Incidents of bullying are often treated by school administrators as isolated problems rather than being part of systemic and cultural problems that need to be addressed more broadly, said Debra Feldstein, a community activist and parent of two kids in the Santa Cruz City Schools district.

Feldstein doesn’t know Schilling personally but said she’s engaged with her for years in Facebook parent groups focused on raising awareness and social justice activism.

She was alarmed and angry to hear about the experience of Schilling’s family, saying incidents like these cause emotional and physical harm to children.

“There are ineffective and unsustainable attempts to ‘treat’ mental health and provide support within the schools, rather than addressing root causes,” she said. “We had an opportunity post-COVID to create new academic models that relieved the massive amount of academic pressure with which so many kids struggle, to focus more on [social emotional learning], to address systemic racism and other forms of discrimination, as we saw the pandemic exacerbate those issues.”

Instead, Feldstein said, students are still expected to meet pre-pandemic academic expectations and teachers and administrators haven’t been given the tools they needed to manage the long-term and changing impacts of COVID-19 on youth.

National studies show that kids have carried the residual effects of stress and social isolation from the pandemic back into the classroom, fueling a rise in mental health issues and violent behavior, even as most schools have fully resumed in-person instruction.

Schilling’s son said he enjoyed his first day of school Friday in one of the COE’s alternative schools. Schilling wishes her son had a different outcome, but she’s excited for his new school.

“It went really well,” her son said about his first day. “I felt safe.”

Future coverage: Are you an expert, parent, student or educator and want to talk to Lookout about bullying for future coverage on the topic? Reach out to Hillary Ojeda at hillary@lookoutlocal.com or 661-717-6637.

After three years of reporting on public safety in Iowa, Hillary joins Lookout Santa Cruz with a curious eye toward the county’s education beat. At the Iowa City Press-Citizen, she focused on how local...