Michelle Rodriguez
Michelle Rodriguez says the new program will be about “taking a proactive, preventative approach” at Aptos and Watsonville High Schools.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

‘A proactive, preventative approach’: PVUSD’s leader explains why new campus safety plan is the answer

In an exclusive one-on-one with Lookout, Pajaro Valley Unified School District Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez calls the pairing of a school resource officer with a mental health clinician on the Aptos and Watsonville High campuses a “win-win.”

After listening to hours of comments from an emotional, divided crowd Wednesday night, members of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District board swiftly voted to reinstate student resource officers on campuses and embark on a new pilot program pairing them with mental health clinicians in an attempt to put community safety concerns at ease in the wake of the Aug. 31 killing of a student at Aptos High School.

As the divisiveness of the meeting showed, the diversity of opinion is largely in line with the diversity of the areas that PVUSD oversees. Watsonville’s population is 82% Latino, Aptos is 88% white and Aptos High has just a slightly higher white population than Latino (50%-43%).

District Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez, in an exclusive interview with Lookout, described the decision to pair mental health clinicians with SROs as a “win-win” solution that addresses concerns about student safety while also recognizing that context and cultural awareness matter.

According to Rodriguez, the goal is for the new tandem, while engaging with students, to be “taking a proactive, preventative approach, and really trying to see what is at the root of that disruption or the root of that negative behavior.”

The district will start by reinstating an SRO at Aptos and Watsonville high schools, after previously voting to remove them in the summer of 2020 amid protests against systemic racism and police brutality, as well as budgetary concerns.

The district’s pilot program — pairing SROs with mental health clinicians — will run through May 2022, at which point the district will discuss making the program permanent and expanding it to Pajaro Valley High School. A timeline for implementation has yet to be finalized.

The PVUSD building.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The pilot program, along with other health and safety measures including additional campus supervisors, security cameras and improved communication, will cost $1,197,257 at first and see an ongoing cost of $823,700. According to Rodriguez, this number could be more if the program is expanded.

The pilot is based on models across the state and nation, though Rodriguez said most of these programs are conceived by police or sheriff departments, not schools. She referenced the nearby Watsonville Police Department, which has partnered with the Santa Cruz County Mental Health Liaison program since 2016 to send a mental health professional out with officers on mental health-related calls.

In partnering with Watsonville police, the mental health professionals are non-uniformed and also often look like the community members they are serving. According to Rodriguez, the school district will take diversity into consideration when selecting both mental health clinicians and SROs — one of which will come from the sheriff’s department and the other of which will come from Watsonville PD.

At Aptos High, 43% of the students are Latino and almost 50% are white. At Watsonville High, over 95% of students identify as Latino.

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Having “someone that at least is culturally aware would be important,” Rodriguez said.

At Watsonville PD, and at other law enforcement offices in the county, mental health specialists’ primary job is to provide psychological evaluations, along with linking people to community resources, such as Adult Protective Services or substance abuse disorder programs.

Aptos High School.

The officer-clinician pairing will look different on the school level, though administrators are still figuring out specifics. The SRO and mental health officer will walk together on campus, using their respective individual training to address crises and connect students to resources, such as counselors with the school and Pajaro Valley Prevention & Student Assistance — the district’s sister organization that provides on-site therapists and social workers.

Rodriguez said the district plans to learn from research, which says SROs typically rely on cues from existing school culture: If schools take an empathetic approach, preventing students from putting themselves in bad situations, the officers have been shown to follow suit, she said.

The officer and mental health official will also be hired knowing they will be in a partnership, Rodriguez added.

“Each one has specific strengths and training that the other one does not,” Rodriguez said. “We feel that that combination can be a win-win to the situation which we’re in, which is wanting to have resource officers on campus to see if that can help support human safety, while at the same time, recognizing that context matters.”

At the Wednesday meeting, while many parents fiercely advocated for reinstating SROs on campus to protect their children, other community members — many of whom identify as BIPOC — drew on the history of police brutality against youth of color. In a presentation, Rodriguez cited an American Civil Liberties Union study that found Latino students were arrested at a rate 1.3 times that of white students.

Rodriguez said that administrators are talking about SROs not dressing in full law enforcement uniforms. She added that Aptos and Watsonville High’s officers will, in fact, be armed and that the board hasn’t yet discussed the possibility of them not being armed.

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“One of the key differences between a campus supervisor and an SRO is two-fold: One is training,” she said. “But then also (the officers’) ability to carry a firearm when necessary.”

We want your feedback: Tell us your thoughts on the idea of partnering an SRO with a mental health clinician by emailing us at news@lookoutlocal.com.