Officers stand guard outside of Aptos High School after a student was stabbed on Aug. 31, 2021.
Officers stand guard outside of Aptos High School after a student was stabbed and killed on Aug. 31, 2021. A school resource officer began working on campus Oct. 18, 2021, following a PVUSD board decision.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

Half of the new SRO solution in place at Aptos High: Officer hired, mental health clinician still to come

A school resource officer started his second week working at Aptos High School after the Pajaro Valley Unified School District board of trustees voted in September to reinstate the position at two high schools. PVUSD officials didn’t respond to requests for information about Watsonville High’s implementation of the program.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Lopez started working at Aptos High School earlier this month as part of the new pairing of school resource officers with mental health clinicians at Aptos and Watsonville high schools.

In the wake of a stabbing that left an Aptos High student dead, the Pajaro Valley Unified School District board of trustees voted in September on the program, which pairs a law enforcement officer with a mental health professional with the aim of providing a safe environment for students.

Paul Lopez is sworn in by Sheriff Jim Hart in March of 2020.
(Via Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office)

Aptos High Principal Peggy Pughe told Lookout she’s excited about having two people on site who can provide support using a holistic approach. She added that interviews for the mental health clinician who will be paired with Lopez are ongoing.

She said during his first week on the job, Lopez, who started Oct. 18, spent time getting familiar with the school schedule and meeting staff and students.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sgt. Dan Robbins said Lopez was hired by the sheriff’s office two years ago and has been a law enforcement officer for 15 years. Previously, he worked in several positions at the Scotts Valley Police Department. While working as a detective, he specialized in cases involving juveniles and ran the DARE program.

The decision to bring SROs back to PVUSD schools was tense as parents and community members weighed in on their reasons for supporting or opposing their return. Those against having SROs argued that they would have a disproportionate impact on Black students and other students of color.

Aptos High Principal Peggy Pughe (middle) in discussion about SROs on campus in September.

Latino students are arrested at a rate 1.3 times that of white students, according to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union, which PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez cited at a September board meeting. At Aptos High, 43% of students identify as Latino, and at Watsonville High, 95% of students identify as such.

At the PVUSD Oct. 13 meeting, teachers and concerned residents criticized the district’s decision to bring the SROs back. Watsonville High teacher Travis Walker, who brought forward issues of teacher pay and emotional support for students, argued against the SRO program, saying more counselors should have been brought to schools.

Another community member who spoke out against the program said, referencing the September board meeting, “even the superintendent provided you with concrete data that SROs are harmful.”

He also raised concerns about knowing what measures would be in place when students have interactions with the SROs — will their parents be notified, for example?

Pughe said she understands the concerns that speak to experiences community members have had.

“We appreciate that concern and understand it. And that’s why I think it’s so important that the school board made the decision that they did make, which was to pair the mental health clinician who’s intended to help de-escalate,” she told Lookout. “I think it’ll be a good partnership for that reason, it honors the concern, while also moving forward through a place of healing.”

PVUSD Board Trustee Daniel Dodge Jr. voted to bring the SROs back. He said he attended Watsonville High at a time when gangs were active, and he feels SROs kept the schools safe in some situations.

“I think it’s a deterrent, it made people think twice,” he told Lookout. “Like, ‘Hey we can’t go there because there’s a cop.’” He added that SROs can also provide students with another option for seeking support if they are struggling with issues at home or other challenges.

He said as a parent as well, he hopes his daughter would be able to go to an SRO for help.

Mirella Gonzalez said her daughter, a freshman at Aptos High, came home from school during her first few weeks concerned about fights happening on school grounds. Gonzalez supports the return of SROs.

“I think it’s going to be a positive thing, especially since they’ll be working with a mental health clinician,” she said.

Robbins said the sheriff’s office does not have a policy specifically for school resource officers but has policies guiding deputies’ work involving young people. As for the school resource officer and that person partnering with mental health clinicians on school grounds, he said it will be a new experience.

Deputies do have the experience of working with mental health liaisons while on patrol when responding to calls related to people in crisis, however.

He said school resource officers are not involved in school discipline, and their overall goal is campus safety.

“Our SRO will investigate serious matters that are related to student safety,” he wrote in an email to Lookout. “However, for low-level crimes that occur on campus that are not safety-related, we will defer to the school for discipline.”

In addition to employing Lopez at Aptos High as an SRO, the sheriff’s office also has two more in different districts: Soquel and San Lorenzo Valley high schools. All of the sheriff’s office SROs work those positions full time and all have received SRO training.

Previously, PVUSD officials said the SRO-mental health liaison pilot program at Aptos and Watsonville high schools would be launched in November. Lookout reached out to PVUSD officials Friday to ask when the mental health liaisons and the Watsonville High SRO would be starting but had not received a response as of Thursday.

The SRO for Watsonville High School will be hired from the Watsonville Police Department. A police spokesperson said they’re still working with the district on finalizing a contract.

The new SRO program, in addition to a variety of safety measures such as adding security cameras and campus supervisors, will cost PVUSD about $1.2 million.