Soul-searching in Scotts Valley: Flag flap highlights ongoing community issues around diversity and inclusion

Pride Month being honored for the first time at Scotts Valley City Hall.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The flag controversy — possibly equating a gay pride flag with that of the NRA or KKK — simply reflected Santa Cruz’s least diverse city coming to grips with new realities. An active Facebook group, with 230 members, is pushing forward on diversity and equity while Scotts Valley leaders candidly confront their city’s issues. 

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The galvanizing topic that brought this diverse group of Scotts Valley strangers together on Facebook — deep concerns about their city’s inclusiveness, especially in the wake of a bullied Scotts Valley High freshman’s suicide — was suddenly playing out before them at a June 1 city council meeting.

The night seemed primed for a celebration, with Scotts Valley set to become the final city in Santa Cruz County to raise the Pride flag, needing just a vote of approval from the city’s five-member city council. It was only weeks removed from another recent historic achievement: a large, well-attended multicultural fair held at one of the city’s elementary schools.

More than 30 attendees showed up via Zoom at the virtual city council meeting. The passionate group of speakers included two individuals — Santa Cruz’s Donna Meyers and Watsonville’s Jimmy Dutra — who had recently served as the first openly gay mayors of their cities to serve simultaneously. (John Laird became one of the first openly gay mayor in the country when he took the reins in Santa Cruz in 1983.) They lauded the flag’s importance to many at-risk youth searching for their identity.

“I would love to see a Pride flag flown by city council for Pride Month,” said speaker Q Licht, a transgender Scotts Valley High student. “It’s such a powerful and visible symbol of support for the LGBTQ+ community.”

But there were party crashers in the midst, in the form of council members Randy Johnson and Jim Reed, whose words forced the turn to political and policy wrangling.

Johnson and Reed tag-teamed the implication that a decision to fly the Pride flag could lead to similar requests by groups like the National Rifle Association or Klu Klux Klan.

“What happens if the KKK turns around and asks for the same privilege?” Reed asked.

“Commemorative flags flown cannot be religious, political or election-related,” Q Licht, the teenager, politely corrected the veteran council members at the end of his statement, which followed theirs. “And I believe that the Second Amendment falls into the category of political.”

Ultimately, LGBTQ+ won out over NRA and KKK for “acronym of the night.” The city council voted 5-0 in favor of the rainbow flag flying below the Stars and Stripes at city hall for the month of June, LGBT Pride Month. But not before politics and divisiveness had intervened as the buzzkill to what many considered an important ceremonial moment for inclusivity in a place and time that needed it.

This should’ve been really easy. That it wasn’t shows that we’ve got a lot of work to do.

— Derek Timm

“This should’ve been really easy,” former mayor Derek Timm, who brought the motion forward, told Lookout. “That it wasn’t shows that we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

“Appalling,” said one emotional parent who raised her hand to speak but could barely organize her thoughts around the NRA comparison she had just heard.

The two council members who spoiled the would-be celebration of others didn’t seem to understand why their chosen comparatives might come off as insensitive or tone-deaf. Their actions, they said, were just about good public policy, working things through aloud.

“Sometimes,” Johnson told Lookout, “that’s how city council and democracy works. Sometimes we have to ask questions that are uncomfortable, and we have to explore unintended consequences.”

Sometimes we have to ask questions that are uncomfortable.

— Council member Randy Johnson

“I don’t remember anyone speaking out against honoring Pride Month and that’s an important point,” Reed told Lookout. “Folks not in government don’t understand, but there’s a legal side to everything.”

However, to those following the city and school district doings over time and especially closely since the February suicide of Scotts Valley High School student Mateo Deihl, it was further proof that Scotts Valley’s 12,000 residents remain deeply divided. The issues of diversity, equity and inclusion have caused more controversy in Scotts Valley than in its neighboring areas in Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties.

Mateo Deihl.
(Via Regina Deihl)

One notable result has been the formation of a Facebook group specifically geared toward combating that reality. That the hundreds who have become members — a very determined group of parents that includes lawyers, doctors and community organizers — found the page and began sharing information displays the profound soul-searching Scotts Valley is now undergoing.

All of them felt there was something in the community water that didn’t taste quite right. And the pride flag flap was just the latest reminder.

“It’s like, ‘Really, this is where we’re at as a community?’” said Regina Deihl, the mom of Mateo Deihl, who took his life in February after enduring years of racial bullying Regina Deihl had been imploring the Scotts Valley Unified School District to help stop.

Deihl was among those listening in that night in disappointment. She spoke to Lookout in depth about her ongoing challenge to get the school district’s attention and send a very clear message that she’s not going away before the community has been convinced that what happened to her son won’t happen to others.

“There’s a sense in Scotts Valley that we’re better than others,” said Deihl. “And that does a lot of harm in this community.”

‘We kinda let others lead the way’

Even though Scotts Valley has twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans — the county as a whole is closer to a 3-to-1 split — it has long been considered Santa Cruz County’s more conservative Silicon Valley bedroom community, nestled into the Highway 17 foothills.

Its tidy subdivisions, bucolic parks and family-friendly Fourth of July celebrations have placed it among the county’s few classically suburban outposts; only Aptos shares some of that DNA.

It is also one of the least diverse (81.4% white) and one of its wealthiest areas, with an average household income of $108,289. (Santa Cruz County, as a whole is 69% white, with an average household income of $89,986.)

How much those factors may correlate to its inclusivity challenge is up for debate. City leaders, though, seem to agree that Scotts Valley will never be a trailblazer on social issues.

In the case of the Pride flag, where you’re talking about human rights, respecting people, I think that we should be first out of the gate. But we’re not. That’s just sort of our style.

— Council member Jack Dilles

“We tend to let others lead the way and make sure things make sense before wading in,” said council member Jack Dilles. “In the case of the Pride flag, where you’re talking about human rights, respecting people, I think that we should be first out of the gate. But we’re not. That’s just sort of our style.”

Mayor Donna Lind understands the cautious approach firsthand. She said coming from a law enforcement and military background and a very patriotic family, her tendency has always been to equate government buildings with government flags. Lind had to do her homework on both make sure the city would be on solid legal ground and understand why the Pride flag held such importance to so many.

“I talked to students and people in the community to get an understanding of how important it is — especially right now with some of the bullying that’s happening in our local schools,” she said. “Our LGBTQ kids not feeling included. The more I talked and listened, the more I realized it was important.”

Timm, the former mayor, said he tried to get the flag flying in Scotts Valley a year ago. But he was told by staff that drawing up a policy would take time. A year later, after he’d passed the mayoral torch to Lind in another politically awkward council meeting, he was ready to fulfill a promise he had made to Meyers and Dutra to bring Scotts Valley along with the rest of the county.

Former mayors Donna Meyers of Santa Cruz (left) and Jimmy Dutra of Watsonville.
(Via City of Santa Cruz; Jimmy Dutra Community Leader Facebook page)

Timm spoke passionately at the meeting about why the cause is important, especially in a small town like Scotts Valley. People should take time to recognize, understand and celebrate each other’s differences but often do the opposite, he said.

“I felt that our silence around the subject was louder in some ways than by not flying the flag — we were sending more of a message,” he said. “It takes a lot of education and also a lot of storytelling to understand the experience of those who have been marginalized. To know how that feels and know how important it is for others to stand up and say, ‘Hey, we see you and we want to include you as part of our community.’”

Lind said she had seen the negative publicity the Sacramento suburb of Roseville received by voting down a commemorative flag policy that would allow the Pride flag to fly. She knew there was an optics component to how the city council conducted business June 1.

“I knew that if we were to go against it, it was going to look very bad for Scotts Valley,” she said. “It’s going to look like we’re not inclusive.”

A Facebook group mobilizes change-makers

Ashley Perlitch grew up as a Mexican American experiencing her “fair share of racism” while attending schools in Santa Clara County. After moving to Scotts Valley four years ago with her husband and children, the UC Santa Cruz grad began to feel out of place, and wondered if she’d made a mistake.

But instead of fleeing, she did what the modern citizen does: She started a Facebook group. With it has come hope for positive change.

In the intro to the private Scotts Valley Diversity Equity Inclusion and Allyship Community Group, Perlitch explains: “With all the changes in our society over the last few decades, I began to believe that my children would not have such awful experiences. That belief was shattered when I attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Scotts Valley and heard several first-hand accounts from students in our district of appalling racism, sugar-coated history education, and some apathetic faculty members. I do not want my children, your children, OUR CHILDREN to suffer silently, or feel like they are alone and do not have the support to challenge the discrimination they face. ... so I started this page.”

The group of 230 members has become an active hub for idea exchange and a catalyst for change. It’s where the seeds were planted for the first-of-its-kind multicultural fair that drew 500 people to Vine Hill Elementary School in May.

Dancers at the multicultural fair in May.
(Via Orenda Randuch)

It was on that page where Deihl was actively sharing her battles to be heard by the school district long before the loss of her son. She remains an active voice as she vows to honor his legacy by creating a safer social-emotional environment for other kids and their families.

Deihl has met with moms like herself, those like Amee Sawhney, an urgent care doctor for Sutter Health in Santa Cruz. Sawhney says she is one of many Scotts Valley parents fed up with the school district’s unresponsiveness in addressing bullying issues at school.

Even though Sawhney has moved her children to a different school district — part of a growing issue in Scotts Valley, where the high school saw a county-high 69% increase in transfers last school year — she doesn’t want to move from the community. She wants to help the community grow.

“Instead of feeling kind of alone in our little corners, we’re banding together,” Sawhney said. “It brings a little bit of unity and a feeling of community by meeting each other. And then trying to provide some education, some activism, bringing it to the political level where we’re trying to show that there is an issue, there is a problem here and we’re trying to make some change.”

Perlitch, who has children at Brook Knoll Elementary School, mobilized people in that online space and has been able to pull them together in person as well. She has pushed for DEIB (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, Belonging) curriculum — educational tools geared to help teachers, staff, students and parents communicate effectively around diversity issues — and says the pushback she’s felt in Scotts Valley has been surprising.

The multicultural fair included representation from countries all around the world.
The multicultural fair included representation from countries all around the world.
(Via Orenda Randuch)

“Given how close we are to Santa Cruz, yes, but given the current political climate we’re in it’s difficult to form expectations in any community,” she said. “I’ve witnessed people coming into our local Scotts Valley meetings about inclusion and acceptance and trolling the group, trying to scare or demean our fellow community members. I’ve had my BLM and We Believe In signs stolen from my front yard and replaced with Trump signs.”

She and the group’s members have also seen worse, most tragically the loss of Mateo Deihl. Sawhney believes the work being done to get the school district’s attention is important but that other work in the broader community — including support for the Pride flag at city council — is also imperative.

“If those kids are learning their bad behaviors at home, then we’re not catching that at school,” she said. “So we need to take it to the full community level.”

Deihl said she plans to continue her fight to make systemic change in the school district in honor of her son. Thanks to the likes of Perlitch, Sawhney and the many others she has spoken with before and after his death, she won’t be fighting that fight alone.

She sees this as a crossroads moment for the community of Scotts Valley — a moment of self-reflection on what would seem like an easy question.

Group pic
Derek Timm and his wife, Tricia, (far right) flank Amee Sawhney and Christina McQueen during the AAPI Heritage Festival in Santa Cruz.

“Do we acknowledge that these are problems?” she said. “And are we willing to do something about it?”

Perlitch’s most recent post to the Facebook group page provided details about an informational meeting for anyone interested in running for local office, including city council. One comment, in particular, drew many hearts and thumbs-up emojis.

“I REALLY hope that someone from this group will run for SV council!!”

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