The scene at the Henry J. Mello Center on Wednesday night.
K-12 Education

PVUSD board votes to return SROs to campuses but with twist: Officers to pair with mental health clinicians

Pajaro Valley Unified School District Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez says this pilot program is among other new safety measures that will be implemented. An emotional, divided crowd of more than 100 turned out at the Henry J. Mello Center in Watsonville on Wednesday night.

In the summer of 2020, amid protests against police brutality and systemic racism, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District board voted to remove student resource officers (SROs) from its campuses. But, in the wake of the late-August murder at Aptos High School which triggered concerns about student safety, that decision was called into question.

Wednesday night, after hours of comments from impassioned community members in a meeting spanning over four hours, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District voted 6-1 to reinstate SROs at Aptos and Watsonville high schools.

But, according to district Superintendent Michelle Rodriquez, the job of SROs will not look as it did previously: The schools will embark on a pilot program in which each officer is paired with a mental health clinician.

Additional health and safety measures include building on restorative practices and expanding the Student Success Project, which provides young people who are on probation intervention and prevention strategies. Measures also include adding more campus supervisors, improving cell service and security camera systems at Aptos High, and improving communication systems in the case of emergencies.

The board also plans to contract out an independent review and evaluation of what happened before, during and after the Aug. 31 event.

The SRO program, along with these safety measures, will come with an almost $1.2 million price tag.

Highlighting community divides

The Wednesday meeting at the Henry J. Mello Center drew roughly 100 parents, current and former students, and community members from across the district, highlighting divides in the diverse community PVUSD serves.

Emotions ran high as parents and teachers — who knew the stabbed 17-year-old identified by audience members as Gerardo — shed tears, and tensions spilled over as attendees who refused to wear masks were yelled at by audience members. At one point, board trustee Georgia Acosta even noted that the board president could shut down the meeting if the audience was not respectful, though it never reached that point.

The audience appeared evenly split between people in favor of reinstating SROs and those opposed, with around 20 people speaking from each side.

Traffic backed up down Freedom Blvd
Traffic backed up down Freedom Blvd on Aug. 31 as an Aptos High student was airlifted away after being stabbed.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

One concerned parent and district staff member, Daisy Brooks, said, “This is our opportunity as a community and school district to work together with our local law enforcement to create a safe environment.”

Another parent advocating for SROs on campus said, “This is about a child that cannot be brought back, and we need to prevent that from happening again.”

But others questioned if an SRO could have prevented such an event since evidence on the effectiveness of SROs can be murky. In the meeting, Rodriguez cited a 2013 congressional report which found that while SROs can deter students from bringing weapons or committing assaults on campus, children in schools with SROs might be more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses.

Attendees highlighted that the impact of SROs will be disproportionately felt by BIPOC students. Many of them held signs saying messages like “No school to prison pipeline” and “Invest in our youth.”

“The unintended consequences of bringing SROs back to campus will fall heavily on students of color,” Bernie Gomez, a local activist, said before the board.

One American Civil Liberties Union study, cited in Rodriguez’s presentation, found that Latinx students were arrested at a rate 1.3 times that of white students. The majority of students PVUSD serves identify as Latinx.

At Aptos High, the student body is fairly racially mixed: 43% of the students are Latinx, while closer to 50% are white. At Watsonville High, however, over 95% of students identify as Latinx.

“(SROs) make students who look like me and look like most of the students in Watsonville feel unsafe,” Travis Walker, a Watsonville High teacher, said in the meeting, advocating for more counselors instead of law enforcement.

Across over 30 schools, PVUSD currently has 17 social-emotional counselors. This is a 55% increase from 2018, according to the district staff’s presentation. There are also 23 high school counselors, 14 mental health technicians and 19 school psychologists — and many attendees said this is not enough.

Two ‘conflicting issues’

Board President Jennifer Holm framed the conversation as focusing on “two seemingly conflicting issues”: “safety” and “equal justice under the law.” Holm, who ultimately voted in favor of reinstalling the officers, said both issues are “urgent and important” and suggested incorporating SROs into the restorative process.

Board Trustee Maria Orozco, the only trustee to oppose reinstating SROs, argued for instead investing in addressing the root causes of violence among students, with mental health resources, among other items.

Speaking as a member of the Latinx community, she said, “I feel that as it is, we have already compromised enough.”

While Orozco initially didn’t vote in favor of reinstating officers, she ultimately voted to fund the measure, which includes a laundry list of other safety measures and passed unanimously.

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