‘Kids pretty much on their own’: Leaders grapple with Pajaro Valley’s pandemic-fueled youth violence crisis

Danny Contreras tells his story to a crowd gathered for the vigil of a 17-year-old killed on-campus at Aptos High.
Danny Contreras tells his story to a crowd gathered for the vigil of a 17-year-old killed on campus at Aptos High on Aug. 31.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Those who see it up close talk to Lookout about what they view as the biggest challenges to fixing the problems that ail so many kids growing up in Watsonville. But they are far from easy, and many rooted deeply in the systems that govern an area with a disproportionate population living below the poverty line.

On a somber morning in downtown Watsonville, five days after an Aptos High School student died from the stab wounds allegedly inflicted by a classmate, Danny Contreras was the only speaker at a vigil for the 17-year-old victim to elicit applause from an otherwise numb crowd.

Contreras, holding his sleeping baby son, Ray, on his right shoulder and clutching a microphone with his left hand, explained how he had spent 12 years in prison for murder before turning his life around and trying to pay his lessons learned forward.

Danny and Ray Contreras.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Contreras works for the County of Santa Cruz Health Services Agency and has volunteered his time counseling school kids across the county — with a special emphasis on South County campuses where gang rivalries simmer just below the surface.

“Sometimes these kids need to hear from people like me so they know they don’t want to go down that road,” Contreras told the crowd. “There’s an old saying that those who are hurting hurt others. We don’t know what’s going on with these kids, but they need somebody they can talk to, they need some services, they need some help. We need to invest in them.”

We don’t know what’s going on with these kids, but they need somebody they can talk to, they need some services, they need some help. We need to invest in them.

A chorus of claps rang forth.

Contreras was largely referring to the investment in mentoring programs like the one that brought him and fellow community activists from groups such as Barrios Unidos and the Community Action Board to Pajaro Valley High School under the school’s previous leadership.

With talk already simmering about the likely return of school resource officers to Pajaro Valley Unified School District campuses, the cheers from the crowd were a vote for sharper focus on proactive measures. That is, to get in front of problems that would perhaps render the need for an SRO moot — the type of to-the-root, relationship-building, problem-solving measures commonly referred to as restorative practices.

While PVUSD administrators continue to sort out details for a pilot program that will return an armed police officer to campus, pairing them with a mental health clinician at the Aptos and Watsonville high schools, the wider community remains deeply divided about how best to approach campus safety.

The mourning of many loved ones lost was part of the Romo Park vigil.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Few, however, disagree on this: The system of supports for Pajaro Valley youth is broken.

There is no rosy picture to be painted of the challenges facing teachers, administrators and parents as a generation of pandemic-fatigued kids tries to rediscover its sense of normal amid an increase in economic hardship, food insecurity, educational challenges and social isolation.

Lookout reached out to leaders from the Watsonville community, those from city hall, education, law enforcement and behavioral health, to hear what they’re seeing from kids as they return to in-person school, some for the first time in 18 months — and what type of restorative practices, social-emotional resources and other programs they believe are needed. Here’s what they had to say.

‘We’ve been losing things gradually’


FRANCISCO “PACO” ESTRADA: Watsonville city councilmember; former mayor & SCC Office of Education staffer

The Watsonville native remembers how soccer helped him find his people, and himself. And he remembers how a longtime program organized by the Salesian Order of the Catholic Church called the Penny Club was also a savior for many kids who needed a support hub.

Perhaps even bigger than what it was for the kids, Estrada remembers what it did to galvanize adults around the children. “My dad, an immigrant, really didn’t start becoming part of the community until he started taking me to Penny Club and he started volunteering, and then he became a soccer coach and then he became a mentor to 20 young people.

Francisco "Paco" Estrada
(Via Paco Estrada)

“And that’s something I’m very proud of that my dad spent years volunteering and giving his time to the community. That’s what I saw, and now I’m trying to repeat it,”

But without enough programs providing such opportunities, Estrada is as frustrated as everyone else in Watsonville looking for sustainable ways of change. Especially over the past year and a half.

“For a while now down in Watsonville, I feel like we’ve been losing things gradually. A lot of really positive things that helped out a lot of kids in the community,” he said. “Then when COVID hit … I don’t think anyone was prepared to deal with it. I feel like the foundation was never really built for the young people, the system was never really completed. When the emergency hit, the system collapsed super easy.”

I feel like the foundation was never really built for the young people, the system was never really completed.

With the limited state funding that districts like PVUSD receive — which he calls “this little lump that we’re all fighting for, this little lump we’re supposed to make miracles with” — Estrada is unsure that difference-making programs can come through the school system.

“I would love to see more after-school programs that would expose kids to music or science and STEM stuff or art and comics or whatever it is,” he said. “But I also wish we lived in a community where we had enough housing, where people had a good livable wage job, they had PTO (paid time off) because schools need more volunteers, they need more parents to be involved.”

Estrada, who is trying to send his own message that smart can be cool via a comic event called “Nerdville,” knows it comes down to planting seeds early via as many available programs as possible: “We need everything in this community,” he said. “Because I’ve learned that if you expose young people to something early on, you might be saving them.”

‘There were so many stereotypes’


MARIA OROZCO: Longtime PVUSD board trustee and academic counselor at UC Santa Cruz

Maria Orozco
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Orozco, who cast the lone dissenting vote on the return of SROs at the special PVUSD meeting, said, “It stopped being about SROs for me a long time ago. It’s about getting down to solutions.”

It stopped being about SROs for me a long time ago. It’s about getting down to solutions.

And despite the palpable division between Aptos and Watsonville factions at that meeting, Orozco has felt a level of understanding about the real problems that need addressing, even from those who wanted a return of armed officers to campuses.

“At least from the emails that I received from Aptos parents, I think they understand that. I think they fear for their kids’ safety, but they understand that that’s not the long-term solution to what we’re all concerned about, the youth violence. And I think if we approach the situation that way I think it will open up the room for having that dialogue. I haven’t received any personal attacks, it’s been appreciation for bringing the bigger issues to light.”

Maria Orozco was the lone PVUSD trustee to speak at the vigil.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

If anyone knows the tricky dynamics at hand, it’s Orozco, a Watsonville native who graduated from Aptos High. She said the divisiveness of that meeting tells her the segregation of that campus and community haven’t changed significantly. Student government was her salvation — and a path to building new bridges.

“There were so many stereotypes, going both ways,” she said. “When you’re able to make that one-on-one connection with another individual from a different culture, I think that’s when the lightbulb goes off. You realize that we’re more alike than we think. If we have more opportunity to do that, that could address at least part of what we’re still seeing.”

‘One of the core elements of mental illness is social isolation’


ERIC OCHOA: Director of behavioral health at Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance

“I always tell people that one of the core elements of mental illness is social isolation,” said Ochoa, who helps lead an organization created 30 years ago specifically to provide mental health counselors and therapists to PVUSD.

According to Ochoa, youth are reeling from the social isolation of the pandemic. He noted that the recent murder at Aptos High falls into a pattern of increased crisis scenarios since schools reopened this fall, in which youth have thoughts of hurting either oneself or others.

He said that while the Aug. 31 event was the first killing on a school campus, South County youth have seen other deaths and violence in the community in recent months, such as the stabbing death of 15-year-old JohnPaul Moreno on Aug. 7.

“When you zoom out, you just notice that there’s a lot more of those events happening than normal,” Ochoa said.

There’s a lot more of those events happening than normal.

PVPSA has seen a 250% increase in crisis calls since students went back to school in August, compared to the previous 12 months, Ochoa said. The organization saw 120 calls for the 12 months leading up to August — and over 50 in the almost two months since then.

Eric Ochoa
(Via County Behavorial Health)

“This speaks to the challenges of having so much time in isolation and without social development for kids and then having to interact with other people again,” Ochoa said.

With the PVUSD board’s recent decision to reinstate SROs on campuses, along with mental health clinicians, Ochoa said collaboration is key.

“I think that the question is how do we support this community, how do we provide enough therapy, how do we provide enough access to food and shelter and all the basic things that people need to kind of not exhibit some of those trauma responses,” he said.

‘Circles are about honoring who you are’


JAIME MOLINA: Longtime community leader; prevention & early intervention coordinator for county’s mental health division

Molina is one of the area’s biggest believers in building “circles” via an approach called La Cultura Cura, which has been described as a transformative healing philosophy prioritizing cultural values, traditions, and indigenous practices. Joven Noble is a similar program rooted in character development and finding identity.

“We need to think about what’s more in line with what a family lives on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s getting to know each other, acknowledging each other. Circles are about honoring who you are and what you represent.”

Molina paints the picture of a family supplement and perhaps an alternative to a gang for finding identity.

“The things that lead kids to join a gang are the lack of safety, the lack of respect, the lack of purpose,” he said. “All of that is already within them but it is just disconnected because of oppression, because of the pressure to live in this country. So if you can help an individual or family find their true selves, they don’t have to find an identity within a gang. It’s not a miracle cure, but it creates awareness.”

The things that lead kids to join a gang are the lack of safety, the lack of respect, the lack of purpose. So if you can help an individual or family find their true selves, they don’t have to find an identity within a gang.

Molina looks at the Aptos High tragedy and sees many missing pieces for the challenges facing kids right now. “Counseling is missing, a pandemic response is missing,” he said. “Safety is missing, communication is missing, training is missing.

“The pandemic has created a lot of depression, a lot of frustration, a lot of mixed emotions. Kids ... they’re sad. I’m not sure whether the school has really done anything to address that or to prepare for how to handle this reality that’s emerging.”

‘A perfect recipe for this kind of thing’


ANN LOPEZ: Executive director of the Center for Farmworker Families

The basic needs of kids in Aptos are often quite different than those in Watsonville, Lopez points out.

In Aptos, about 5% of the population lives below the federal poverty line, while in Watsonville, that number is nearly 15%. Known as an agricultural mecca, Watsonville’s economy relies on farmworkers — many of whom have struggled to pay rent and provide food for their families during the pandemic.

Ann Lopez and friend
(Via farmerworkerfamily.org)

“These kids are pretty much on their own,” Lopez said.

When parents are working in the fields all day, she said, they are unable to be consistent role models for their children. The kids then join together and create their own families, often gangs. Lopez thinks that this might have been part of the dynamic that led to the Aptos High tragedy.

According to Lopez, reinstating SROs in schools will not help what she referred to as a “totally flawed system.”

“It’s a bandaid on a big problem,” she said. “The systemic problems need to be addressed and dealt with. Having a whole population living in poverty out in the field all day, with their kids free to do whatever they want and falling further and further behind in education ... I mean, it’s a perfect recipe for this kind of thing.”

Having a whole population living in poverty out in the field all day, with their kids free to do whatever they want and falling further and further behind in education ... I mean it’s a perfect recipe for this kind of thing.

Lopez advocates for solutions such as raising the minimum wage for farmworkers, as well as creating more programs that could guide their kids in constructive behavior. Such programs have existed in PVUSD, though with thin resources, they are not widespread.

‘That’s the life so many of us are striving for’


RAMIRO MEDRANO: Longtime PVUSD high school and middle school counselor (academic and social-emotional)

Medrano, who worked for several years as an “intervention counselor” at Pajaro Valley High School, working with students who were considered more at-risk, said he used the Joven Noble approach of tapping into the character of students and trying to build bridges between rival factions.

Ramiro Medrano with his first Joven Noble group.
Ramiro Medrano with his first Joven Noble group.

“We were bringing together students that had beef with each other. We’d meet every week in the library,” he said. “And just the fact they were in the same room, looking at each other, with caring, responsible adults in there, too, it made a big difference. I’d be lying to you if I said it changed every student in there because that’s not how it works. But I did see a change in some of them for sure.”

Medrano says he understands the want for some people in Aptos to focus on an SRO (“I have a daughter and I wouldn’t want to feel she’s unsafe in any public place,” he said), but the issue goes far deeper: “Anybody who works in education will tell you this isn’t about a cop being on campus; these issues have been present for a long time. It’s a very complex issue that I think needs a complex solution.”

Anybody who works in education will tell you this isn’t about a cop being on campus; these issues have been present for a long time.

Medrano thinks it starts with understanding the unique dynamic facing small agricultural towns like Watsonville. He sees a migrant community dreaming of the middle-class existence of most people up the road in Aptos.

“That’s the life so many of us are striving for. We want to live in a safe space. We want to have opportunities to go to college. We want to have sports and other positive after-school stuff that’s engaging,” he said. “But then you have the reality of communities of color, like Watsonville where 50% of the population doesn’t have a high school diploma. Why? Because the main job source here is ag and it is one of the least paying jobs and careers that a person can have in the country.

“So you have this population that is overworked, underpaid and living in poor conditions, because I can assure you that many families are doubled up or even tripled up because the cost of rent or mortgage in this town is crazy. And so it’s like, how do you deal with that?”

‘You need a rainbow of resources and supports’


VALERIE THOMPSON & GINA CASTANEDA: Santa Cruz County Probation Department

In addition to reinstating SROS with mental health clinicians, the PVUSD board also voted to expand the county’s “Student Success Project” to Aptos and Watsonville high schools. The program — a partnership among PVUSD, the Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Office, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education and the Community Action Board — provides intervention and prevention strategies to young people who are both on and off probation.

Valerie Thompson.
Valerie Thompson.
(Via Santa Cruz County Probation)

The Student Success Project currently operates in five schools: PVHS, Renaissance High School, New School, Sequoia High School and Freedom Community School. And since launching in 2017, the project has served about 150 students, according to Valerie Thompson, the assistant chief probation officer for the Santa Cruz County Probation Department.

Thompson said the goal of the program is to stabilize youth in the school setting who are either on probation or deemed at-risk because they have been suspended or expelled. The program engages with parents and connects students to services, such as employment support or counseling.

“During COVID, we were really almost fully deployed around housing support, food security, providing school supplies and helping students to get connected to school virtually,” Thompson said.

Gina Castaneda.
(Via Aztecas)

Thompson said her department is willing to expand the project with PVUSD, but administrators have yet to figure out what this would look like at Watsonville and Aptos highs. About 15 to 20 staff currently work on the project, including members from PVUSD and the county’s office of education, as well as probation officers.

Gina Castaneda, a deputy probation officer, is very much in touch with the county’s Latino youth population. In 2008, she founded the Aztecas Soccer Program for Latino juvenile probationers who affiliate with both Norteño and Sureño gangs.

Castenada, who spoke in favor of SROs at the Sept. 20 board meeting, emphasized that law enforcement can be one component of supporting youth, but they also need mental health and restorative practices, such as conflict resolutions and support from teachers outside of the classroom.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” she said. “You need a rainbow of resources and supports to be able to engage and support youth.”

You need a rainbow of resources and supports to be able to engage and support youth.