‘I’m the one who had to bury my son’: Scotts Valley mom fights for change in wake of bullied child’s suicide

Regina Deihl
Regina Deihl stands near the “Mateo” tree at Scotts Valley High School, a place where her 15-year-old son would hang out with friends.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Scotts Valley High freshman Mateo Deihl was different, his family and friends say, in wonderful ways. A traumatized product of the foster care system, he had compassion for others and tried to be nice to all. It made him an easy target for bullying. When his mother stepped in to try to help affect change, she says her attempts went unheeded at the middle school and high school. Mateo took his own life in February and now his mom, Regina Deihl, a longtime lawyer in the juvenile justice system, must decide what path to take in honoring his legacy.

Sitting on the couch of her Glenwood neighborhood home, 3 miles north of Scotts Valley, Regina Deihl’s bottom lip quivers as she speaks about the duality of the life she finds herself living.

“I understand how hard this is for the school district,” she said. “But I’m the one who had to go down and pick out his casket. I’m the one who had to bury my son.”

Deihl is a mother grieving the suicide death of her 15-year-old son, Mateo, who in February, she says, gave up on the yearslong fight to stop the racial bullying he faced while attending schools in the Scotts Valley Unified School District.

Images of Mateo at the Deihl house.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The baby-faced boy of Latino descent with piercing brown eyes had already “seen things no child should see,” his mom said, before he entered the foster care system. The day he took his own life, she says, “he was just beaten down … he had had enough.”

Deihl is also a veteran lawyer of the juvenile justice system, someone who adopted Mateo and his younger sister, Ellie, after years of watching foster children go without finding loving families. She and her husband, Bill, were in their early 50s, with four adult children they had raised in San Jose’s Almaden Valley, when they decided to adopt Mateo and Ellie. “There just aren’t enough families out there for these kids,” she said.

They moved down the coast from the Half Moon Bay area to Scotts Valley when Mateo was a sixth grader because of the academic reputation of the district. Four years later, she says she now regrets ever putting her children, or trust, in its schools and can’t bear to go away quietly without seeing changes put in place to safeguard other kids and families.

“I will do my best to see that it doesn’t happen to another family,” she said. “Our hope is that Mateo’s legacy will be an improvement in the system that serves kids — especially the most vulnerable kids. And that’s all I can do to really honor his legacy. Our community needs to do better. The leadership of our community needs to do much better.”

With Superintendent Tanya Krause on vacation until July 6, Scotts Valley school board president Sue Rains answered questions from Lookout about the ongoing attempts to address the concerns of Deihl and others that predate Mateo Deihl’s death.

Regina Deihl wears red 'Be Kind' bracelets. Red was Mateo's favorite color.
Regina Deihl wears red “Be Kind” bracelets. Red was Mateo’s favorite color.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Although the death of any student is tragic, we were deeply saddened by Mateo’s passing,” Burns wrote. “SVUSD was already in its second year of our CRC (Cultural Responsiveness Committee), and we are committed to continue to review our practices and address our students’ needs. In addition, we have added additional counselors with plans to add at least one more this summer. Our continued goal is to provide our students with a safe environment that fosters inclusivity, kindness and acceptance.”

Burns said the CRC, made up of staff and students, has a three-part focus: “Equitable Representation in Literacy; WEB — Where Everybody Belongs; Discipline.

Deihl acknowledges that the complaints she and other parents brought to district leadership have led to some actions. But not with any accountability or transparency built into the process.

She cites a lack of transparency around the curriculum with programs such as CRC, inadequate response from Krause and most of the board trustees in response to her son’s death, a clear lack of knowledge about social-emotional and trauma-informed response, and a general community tone-deafness. All of it, she says, has her seeking better answers.

“We can do better than this as a community,” Deihl said. “We can agree that kids shouldn’t die.”

Other parents Lookout spoke with said the high school’s loss of 43 students who transferred elsewhere last year (a 69% increase) indicates that concerns about leadership during a difficult time have become widespread in the small city of 12,000.

Krause, whose contract was renewed for three more years by the board on June 14, announced a leadership shakeup last month, with Scotts Valley High Principal Michael Hanson moving to the district office and Vice-Principal Neil Aratin moving to a teaching position at Scotts Valley Middle School in the fall.

Deihl knows she sits in a unique position to affect greater change. She says she doesn’t want to pursue a legal course against the district. She knows the complications that would involve and “it doesn’t bring Mateo back.”

But she says she’s willing to go the “wrongful death” lawsuit route if necessary, and she spelled that out to the district in a public records request she filed last week. It seeks to see the draft of a report conducted by a consultant called Inclusion Counts, which did multiple listening sessions with parents on the climate of inclusivity at the school.

Deihl and many other parents gave feedback she believes “may be very embarrassing to the district.” She’s afraid it hasn’t been released yet because of revisions being made. “I want to see the non-whitewashed version,” she said.

She also wants to see a direct response to the recommendations she put together for the district. Among them: acknowledgement of community concerns; clear and concise protocols for handling bullying incidents; anti-bias, anti-racism and suicide-prevention programs; mandatory trauma-informed teaching for all staff.

Deihl says this process has exposed too much that is broken. And now she herself is a broken mother on a pointed mission to help bring corrective measures.

“There’s a lot of work to do and I don’t want Mateo’s death to mean nothing,” she said. “He was treated really badly. The school knew that. The school should’ve stepped in and didn’t. And for that reason, I think it’s fair to ask them to make systemic changes.”

Here’s more from Lookout’s conversation with Deihl, edited for brevity and clarity.

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Lookout: How did it get to the point it did?

Regina Deihl: We were trying to address these issues before anything happened to any child. And unfortunately, obviously, that didn’t happen. What I think I didn’t realize was that there were so many other people who were also having similar problems. And I think that we could have done so much more. In this community, the school district was really challenging to try to work with in any sort of collaborative way to try to resolve some of these issues.

There were community concerns raised long before Mateo’s death. And I think what happened to him really activated real concern. I think a lot of people could imagine their child in a situation that would lead to that kind of an outcome. And Mateo was a really nice kid.

Lookout: You look at the pictures of him and it’s hard to imagine a sweeter kid.

Deihl: He was a really nice kid. He had a hard early part of his life. But what happened was it made him even more sensitive to other people and made him try to be nice to other people. He would just do little stuff like bring candy and give it to other kids at school. He’d stick around and unplug the computers for teachers. He won the award in middle school for the most compassionate kid in the class.

Mateo Deihl.
(Via Regina Deihl)

He was an extraordinary kid in that he really took the rough experiences he had when he was young and channeled that into empathy for others, into making somebody else’s day a little brighter. And unfortunately, kids like that sometimes get mistreated at school. The schools allowed stuff to go on that you really should not. They didn’t have a system. Our hope is that Mateo’s legacy will be an improvement in the systems that serve kids, especially the most vulnerable kids. And right now, there’s a lot of work to do.

Lookout: You have submitted suggestions to the district, right?

Deihl: I submitted to them my list of recommendations not too long after Mateo died. But what concerns me the most is the lack of transparency. For example, the district put together what they call a cultural responsiveness group. But they would not allow any student, any parent, any community member who maybe had some expertise to attend those meetings or be on the committee. So to me that indicated a real lack of transparency in that process. And we’ve been waiting for the Inclusion Counts report for months.

So last Friday, I sent them a public records act request. I have gotten a couple of emails, one from the superintendent, one from a board member, and they seem reticent to disclose the information. So I think that this whole area of transparency is an area that really needs to be addressed. I understand that this may be difficult for the district. But continuing not to let the public participate and have some access doesn’t bode well for the district or the public. It doesn’t build trust.

Mateo Deihl.
(Via Regina Deihl)

Lookout: What else is missing in your mind?

Deihl: The other issue is accountability. I think the board has a responsibility to provide the traditional oversight function. And they should be more robust in asking questions and getting the information they need in order to have an honest dialogue. To be able to ask, “What is going on here?” and “What do we need to do?”

We made a decision when Mateo died that we were not going to keep it a secret because I think people should know that this can happen, it does happen and we don’t want it to happen to anybody else. I recognize that I may be biased because my child is dead. But it’s happening to other kids.

Lookout: Was there any outreach by the district?

Deihl: We were very disappointed the superintendent didn’t come to the memorial service. One board member (Roger Snyder) did and we were very thankful for that. He’s the one board member who has engaged us in conversation. (County Superintendent of Schools) Faris Sabbah came, too.

Lookout: Have you had any contact with the superintendent?

Deihl: She was sitting at a table all by herself at this wonderful multicultural fair that the parents put together. So I went over to introduce myself and said, “You know I do have some concerns.” And I didn’t find that conversation particularly insightful or helpful. One of her answers was that, “Well, you know there are people who are difficult and who oppose some of these efforts. And so I think the parent community can help deal with that.”

From my perspective, that was an inadequate response. If you’re on the school board or you’re the superintendent, you need to show leadership. You need to ask, “Is that who we are? That’s what we think is appropriate for our kids?” I think we can do a lot better.

If the superintendent had said to me, “I’m so sorry. I really wish this hadn’t happened” … I don’t think that leads to any liability on the part of the district, to be a decent human being and just say I’m sorry. It would have meant a lot to me. It would have meant a lot to me if she sent me a card. But I think the superintendent is scared.

Regina and Bill Deihl sit under the "Mateo" tree at Scotts Valley High.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

She’s worried about the reputation of the district. We moved here because of the reputation for academic achievement. And that may be true, but the social-emotional climate is horribly lacking. From my perspective and a legal perspective, the district has an obligation to provide a safe learning environment for all kids.

Lookout: Who has been supportive?

Deihl: People from the Facebook group that formed through this (Scotts Valley Diversity Equity Inclusion and Allyship) have really been working to address things and to bring it out. I met with Faris Sabbah, the head of the County Office of Education, and he was very receptive and I thought willing to work with the school district on the kinds of things that need to be done and provide them with support. To my knowledge, in the past the district has not been receptive to that.

I’ve also met with a local juvenile court judge in the county just because I’m used to working with judges. They often have ideas about the nonprofit sector and what kind of resources might be available there.

Regina Deihl
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

What I want out of this is to see tangible improvements in the systems so that another family doesn’t have to go through this.

Lookout: Given all the work you were doing to bring this to their attention, how much liability do you think the district has?

Deihl: People ask about whether I’m going to sue the district for wrongful death. And here’s my answer to that. The answer is yes, I could go that way, but it doesn’t bring Mateo back and it doesn’t honor his memory. There’s no amount of money that can make up for the fact that he’s lying in a grave rather than with other kids.

So what I want out of this is to see tangible improvements in the systems so that another family doesn’t have to go through this. And it’s not like the money from a lawsuit is coming out of the superintendent’s or board’s pockets. It will hit the resources and programs that need this support the most — the very kids in most need.

Lookout: Do you think they’re more afraid of dialogue with you because you are a lawyer?

Deihl: I don’t know the answer to that. I really don’t. When I speak I’m pretty straightforward about what I think and saying what needs to happen. This is what I’m asking for. I certainly have tried my best not to come at this from a legal point of view. I’m a mom, and I lost my son.

I have tried to take a collaborative approach. And I still believe in that but there comes a point, when they’re not responsive to that, that you have to say, “I do intend to hold you accountable.”

Lookout: In your mind, is this as much a Scotts Valley problem as it a school district problem?

Deihl: Schools are really a reflection of the community. The administration at the middle school and high school were very much, you know, “Kids will be kids” and “They need to be more resilient.” We even had a school board member at a board meeting who said, “Well, have we called these kids in (the ones who’ve been mistreated) and you know, tried to make them more resilient?” It’s like, “Wow, you really think it’s the victims’ responsibility to make a correction?” There’s a sense in Scotts Valley that we’re better than others. And that does a lot of harm in this community.

Lookout: It sounds like you are just looking for a course correction that avoids further tragedy.

Deihl: Mateo’s situation is an example of what can go horribly, horribly wrong. And the fact that this isn’t higher at the top of the priority list for the school board and the superintendent is very concerning. I think it’s difficult for them to face. I think it was hard for them when I spoke at a school board meeting and said he died after the racial bullying in the schools, and I buried him on Feb. 5.

That’s a hard thing for the school district to hear. I understand that. But it was really hard for me to deal with, too. So I would like to see them be more engaged. I think this is a legitimate public health concern that should be raised. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. It shouldn’t happen to anybody else.

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