Quick Take:

Pajaro Valley Unified School District Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez says hires are imminent for both Watsonville and Aptos high schools and that the pilot program should be on its way by Nov. 1.

In an attempt to reconcile safety concerns in the wake of the Aug. 31 fatal stabbing of an Aptos High School student, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District voted in mid-September to bring back law enforcement presence to Aptos and Watsonville high schools, embarking on a pilot program pairing school resource officers (SROs) with mental health clinicians.

Now, with hiring drawing to a close, the program will soon come to fruition: District Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez anticipates the SRO-mental health clinician pairs will be on campuses by Nov. 1.

“Their goal together is to encounter issues and support issues from a restorative practices standpoint, and so, they’re coming in and then trying to resolve the issues before they percolate up,” Rodriguez told Lookout.

In the coming weeks, both the SROs and the mental health clinicians will go before hiring panels with the Watsonville Police Department, the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office and PVUSD administration — in an effort to promote collaboration between the law enforcement and mental health sides from the start.

The SRO at Watsonville High will come through the Watsonville Police Department, while the officer at Aptos High is being hired through the sheriff’s office.

According to Ashley Keehn, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, they are looking for a candidate who wants to build relationships with students and “make school a safe place where everyone feels comfortable.” She envisions the SROs going to Friday night football games, or DJing at school events.

“They would want to be a part of that school community,” she added.

Though Rodriguez remains confident the SROs and mental health clinicians will be on campuses by November, Watsonville Police Chief Thomas Sims was not so sure, saying his department hadn’t finalized anything about the SRO selection process.

In response, Rodriguez said that she has been in communication with the Watsonville Police Department and, following a two-week transition after selecting a candidate, the SRO should be on campus on approximately Nov. 1.

In terms of selecting a candidate, Sims wrote via email, “We would want an officer who has an interest in working with the kids and faculty, an officer who wants to be stationed at the school and one who is interested in partnering with a mental health clinician to support the students. Anything less than this basic criteria, the program will not be successful.”

The return of SROs comes after the PVUSD board of trustees voted to remove them in July 2020, amid protests against police brutality and systemic racism, as well as budgetary concerns. The board’s recent decision to reinstate them was hotly contested, and came after hours of comments from impassioned community members.

Many parents and staff members advocated for SROs in order to increase safety in schools and protect their children.

“This is our opportunity as a community and school district to work together with our local law enforcement to create a safe environment,” said one concerned parent and district staff member, Daisy Brooks, at the Sept. 16 meeting. Brooks also started a petition in favor of reinstating SROs, which garnered over 1,500 signatures.

Other community members argued that the impact of SROs will be disproportionately felt by BIPOC students — particularly Latino students, who are arrested at a rate 1.3 times that of white students. At Aptos High, 43% of students identify as Latino, and at Watsonville High, 95% of students identify as such.

Rodriguez said that since the board voted to reinstate SROs, these debates have calmed.

“People are trying to give the benefit of the doubt to the new pilot,” she said. “People are in the wait-and-see mode.”

One advocate, Cesar Lara of the Salinas-based MILPA Collective, agreed that community members are waiting to see what the pairing looks like, but said he still views the program as “unrealistic” and that it will contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline.” He instead advocates for filling teacher vacancies or increasing social-emotional support for children.

Michelle Rodriguez
Michelle Rodriguez Credit: Pajaro Valley Unified School District

“I think the school board had a reactive approach to the incident that happened and that they need to revisit this,” he said.

But while some community members oppose SROs altogether, Rodriguez noted that others have taken a very different stance: They are advocating for SROs in the district’s other high school, Pajaro Valley High School.

When the pilot concludes in May 2022, PVUSD will consider extending it permanently in Watsonville and Aptos highs, as well as expanding it.

“If it is a successful partnership,” she said, “then we definitely will be bringing it to PVHS as well.”

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