Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Lopez started at Aptos High School on Oct. 18.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

New-look school safety programs off and running: Aptos, Watsonville piloting SRO-mental clinician pairing

The Pajaro Valley Unified School District is moving forward with the implementation of its school policing pilot program, which pairs a mental health clinician with a school resource officer at Watsonville and Aptos high schools. At its regular meeting on Wednesday, the district’s board of trustees is slated to discuss what metrics should be recorded and used to measure the program’s success. 

After the school resource officer program was reinstated by the Pajaro Valley Unified School District school board in September at two of its high schools, the program’s members are still only getting started meeting students, families and school staff.

While the Watsonville High School resource officer had his first day on the campus on Monday, both the mental health clinician and the school resource officer have been working on site at Aptos High School for over a month.

The school board voted to create the roughly $1.2 million program, with the new addition of mental health clinicians, after a student was killed on the Aptos High School campus in August. The vote at the Sept. 16 meeting was emotional as the PVUSD community was split between those who feel school resource officers have a disproportionate negative impact on Black students and students of color, and others who feel that officers increase student safety.

In schools, Latino students are arrested at a rate 1.3 times that of white students, according to a study by the American Civil Liberties Union. About 43% of students identify as Latino at Aptos High, and at Watsonville High 95% of students identify as Latino.

Deputy Lopez keeps a watchful eye.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

District officials emphasize that it’s a work in progress. At a meeting Wednesday, the PVUSD board of trustees are scheduled discuss what data the schools should record and use in order to measure the success of the program. They’ll also discuss how both the committee tasked with evaluating the program and the data itself will be created.

Aptos High School Principal Peggy Pughe said she feels good about the program so far.

“I think it’s been going really well,” she said. “It’s really nice to have a partnership.”

Who are they?

Mental health clinician Heather Waltz began working on the Aptos High campus on Nov. 5. Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Lopez began Oct. 18.

Prior to taking on this role, Waltz was the lead behaviorist with special services for PVUSD and supported student access to mental health services. She has a marriage and family therapy license and is a board-certified behavior analyst.

“I’m able to support students in internalizing and externalizing behaviors — that’s my specialty,” she said. “As well as assessment and access to appropriate interventions and providing those interventions.”

Waltz said she’s enjoying being at one site and having the opportunity to focus on one community.

“It’s been really fun having consistent access to students that are here,” she said.

In their first few weeks on the job, she said she and Lopez have been focusing on getting to know students.

Aptos High safety staff
From left to right: Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Lopez; Jonathan Flores, campus security; David Ortiz, campus security; Heather Waltz, mental health clinician.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Being a presence on campus and making connections with students,” said Waltz. “We want to get to know the students and establish relationships as well as getting to know the staff.”

Lopez said they typically start the day greeting kids as they arrive at school in the morning and trying to be as visible and available throughout the day. Lopez has been working at the sheriff’s office for the past two years but has been in law enforcement for about 15 years. Previously, as a detective at the Scotts Valley Police Department, he specialized in cases involving youth.

Pughe said the students are excited to see Lopez on campus, often greeting him and asking him for stickers.

As for Watsonville High School’s team, Watsonville Police Officer Charles Johnson began working on campus as the school resource officer on Monday, according to district officials. PVUSD spokesperson Alicia Jimenez said when the board of trustees approves the new mental health clinician, they will be able to share that person’s name.

Measuring success

The school resource officers at both Aptos and Watsonville high schools will be involved in conducting investigations into crimes that occur on campus but will not be involved in discipline or punishing students.

Among their main duties, the officer will do regular security checks around the school campus, investigate reported crimes, attend events and keep in contact with school officials.

The mental health clinicians will be focused on providing direct support to students and connecting them to services.

“We’re really shifting our focus to how we can proactively address student needs by identifying students that are struggling for whatever reason — maybe they’re not attending class, or they’ve had altercations on campus,” said Waltz.

With that in mind, the district is considering how best to measure how effective the program will be.

“Utilizing anecdotal data and data on deescalation, we believe high school should be a place where students, where if they do make a mistake, we’re here to guide them through that,” said Pughe.

Kristen Shouse, assistant superintendent of PVUSD’s secondary schools, said the district will discuss using three main data points: preventative measures, educational outreach and outcomes of education code violations or legal consequences.

As for the evaluation committee, she said the district’s trustees will also consider it being an 18-member group made up of the SROs, the mental health clinicians, students, parents, teachers, one assistant superintendent and site administrators. The group could have quarterly meetings to discuss the data and how the program is going generally.

When asked how she felt the program was going so far, Shouse said it’s “still too early to know for sure.”

Shouse said the officers and the mental health clinicians will report on a daily and weekly basis to a mix of school administrators and their agencies.

On a weekly basis, she said, they will have team meetings with the principals and assistant principals. In addition, the mental health clinicians will report to PVUSD Coordinator of Student Services Greg Fry, and the officers will report to their individual agencies.

In May, the board of trustees will consider this data and how the program has affected the schools, then decide whether to continue it and potentially expand it to Pajaro Valley High School.

Wide range of community opinions

Carlos Luis has two kids at Aptos High — a freshman and a senior. When the district decided to remove the SROs in July 2020, he said he felt it would only be a matter of time before something happened.

“I think the SROs should never have been removed from schools,” he said. “I’m happy they’re back.”

Another parent, Michelle Beckstrom, has one child at Aptos High. She said while she’s not for or against the program, or having SROs on school grounds, what concerns her most is how decisions are made. She hopes that enough is being done to really seek out how students and parents feel.

“I’d like to see a much broader discussion around what makes the kids feel the most safe in all of the community,” she said.

Both Beckstrom and Luis said their kids felt the tension at the beginning of the school year and commented on fights that were regularly occurring. They were shocked and rattled by the killing of the 17-year-old student. Months later, both parents think their kids are feeling better and report that the fights and tension have subsided.