We’re parents and educators, and we want to talk about school safety in Santa Cruz County

Elementary students at Watsonville's Alianza Charter School looking at posters made by the middle school students.
Elementary students at Watsonville’s Alianza Charter School looking at posters made by the middle school students.
(Via Jen Salinas-Holz)

Six educators — four of whom are parents — are concerned about the safety and overall well-being of kids in our schools. The shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May and the fatal stabbing at Aptos High School just over one year ago have heightened fears across the country and county. But, they write, the authors want us to move beyond fear by initiating frank and in-depth discussions about what safety and well-being look like and how to achieve them. They’d like the community to consider three topics: mental health, restorative justice and the contentious practice of putting armed police officers in schools.

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Kids are back in school, and as parents, educators and community members, we are worried about school safety.

How can we not be? Our summer began with news of another horrifying school massacre, in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24. And as we write this, we remember the shocking news from just over one year ago, on Aug. 31, 2021, when a 17-year-old student at Aptos High School was fatally stabbed by another Aptos High student.

Beyond the real and undeniable fear of what could happen, there are crucial questions our community needs to discuss together. At this point, we have more questions than answers, but we want to work toward having fruitful discussions together in coming months.

Certainly, we all agree that schools should be a sacred space — a place for learning, friendships, personal exploration and group socializing. They should offer our children ways to grow beyond the formal curriculum, beyond reading and writing, to develop into young adults. And we know that parents, teachers and administrators want to make school a place free from fear and violence.

But what actually keeps our kids, all our kids, safe? What can we do to keep all our children — your children, your neighbor’s children, the kids on the other side of the county — safe at school?

And beyond mere safety, what keeps them well? What could that look like in our schools? And how do we get there? Are there promising approaches that we can follow? If so, what are they?

And how can we prioritize funding to make these approaches a reality?

Unfortunately, instead of discussing these important questions together, instead of listening to one another, understanding each others’ fears and learning together, we too often respond in ways that separate and divide us. Complex issues are too often simplified into a binary pro or anti — if you don’t want police in schools, you must be anti-police.

Or perhaps we pull away from these tough conversations because they trigger strong emotions. Or maybe we think we don’t know enough to engage or lack power to make change.

In fact, we have a lot of power, and our kids’ safety depends on us engaging with these questions.

We are parents, educators and members of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), the Santa Cruz County chapter of a national organization that works to educate, organize and mobilize white folks to dismantle white supremacy in ourselves and in the world around us, while engaging in the multiracial, cross-class movement for equity and justice. We are studying and discussing issues related to school safety to better understand and take effective action — and we want to invite you to join us.

Key areas we are exploring include social emotional well-being, restorative justice and school resource officers (SROs).

We’ll explain a little.

Social emotional health is central to safety and wellness. A global pandemic, extreme weather, out-of-reach housing prices, increasing homelessness and ongoing racial and economic inequities are weighing on all of us, and perhaps especially our children. School counselors and programs that help students connect in healthy and nurturing ways are needed now more than ever.

But how is social emotional learning (SEL) and wellness actually playing out in different schools? What kinds of programs are already in place in our schools — and how can we make them more effective? What other approaches should be considered?

Pamela Sexton (right) and Jen Salinas-Holz are educators and members of the organization Showing Up for Racial Justice
Pamela Sexton (right) and Jen Salinas-Holz are educators and members of the organization Showing Up for Racial Justice who are concerned about school safety issues.
(Via Jen Salinas-Holz)

Restorative justice (RJ) — an approach to repairing individual and community harm that is grounded in relationships, skill-building and healing — is garnering more attention these days and has shown positive impacts for many schools. It works to hold students accountable by looking at the root cause of harm and addressing the core needs of all students to restore relationships, safety and wellness.

What does RJ look like in schools and in classrooms? And how might it support our kids in Santa Cruz County? How are current discipline systems, such as positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS), implemented and can they support schoolwide restorative justice practices?

Finally, school resource officers — sworn law enforcement officers with arrest powers who work, either full or part time, in a school setting — have been in schools across Santa Cruz County since the 1990s, when federal subsidies from the 1994 federal crime bill increased the number of police in schools across the country.

For the current school year, we believe there are seven SROs in our county (three in Pajaro Valley Unified School District, two in Santa Cruz City Schools and one each in Scotts Valley Unified School District and in San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District). Some are employed by city police agencies, some work through the sheriff’s office.

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Their presence has become normalized for many, but we have to ask, as a community: Do armed police in our schools really keep children safe and increase their wellness?

How is our answer to this question shaped by our personal experiences with police? Or by various identity factors, such as race, gender identity, sexual orientation and disability? How have we come to believe that armed officers are the answer?

What other approaches might keep our kids — all of our kids — safer and more well?

We know people feel passionately about these issues. We all want to protect our kids. We also know that some voices are too often left out, including student voices and those of lower-income families and families of color.

We hope together we can create opportunities to share perspectives and build more space for information-sharing and dialogue on these pressing questions. We invite anyone interested in further conversations around these issues, either virtual or in person, to contact SURJ Santa Cruz County via our website or by email at surjscc@gmail.com.

We will be organizing dialogues and discussions about this topic in the coming months and hope you will join us.

Susan Kohen is a learning specialist working in private practice with kids with learning differences and disabilities.

Jen Salinas-Holz works for Pajaro Valley Unified School District, where her two children attend school and where she advises three school-based gay-straight alliance clubs and serves on the LGBTQ task force.

Pam Sexton is a parent of two teens and an educator with the Watsonville Adult School.

Ian Slattery is a parent, graduate student, and educator who has worked with youth in schools across Santa Cruz, Santa Clara and San Benito counties.

Erin Wood is an acupuncturist at Santa Cruz Community Health and a UCSC graduate in cultural anthropology.

Nora Yerena is a mother to six children in PVUSD, including two at Aptos High, and a certified family life educator and owner of Raíces y Cariño (RC) Fam in Watsonville.

Seis educadores — cuatro de los cuales son padres — están preocupados por la seguridad y bienestar general de los niños...

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