PVUSD renews SRO program in wake of Aptos High stabbing nine months ago

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Lopez, Aptos High School resource officer
Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Lopez, Aptos High School resource officer.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruz County’s largest school district has renewed what has been a controversial policing presence at its high schools. Pajaro Valley Unified School District and law enforcement officials say it’s too soon to know its overall impact on student safety and preventing incidents, but early surveys find support for the program.

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It’s been nine months since a 17-year-old Aptos High School student was stabbed to death on campus. The tragedy led to an outcry and demand for the reinstatement of the school resource officer (SRO) on campus — which the school board agreed to bring back in September.

Pajaro Valley Unified School District started a pilot program at Aptos High on Nov. 16 and at Watsonville High on Jan. 13, with each SRO paired with a mental health clinician. The SROs are law enforcement personnel, assigned to schools; most county high schools also employ SROs. The SROs and mental health clinicians walk each campus side by side and respond to incidents together, but in some cases, each can handle situations independently.

Because Aptos High sits in the Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Office jurisdiction, it assigns a sheriff’s deputy to the Aptos campus as an SRO, while the Watsonville Police Department assigns an officer to the Watsonville High campus. PVUSD pays the cost of the officers’ assignments.

Last month, the PVUSD board agreed to continue the pilot program, with the requirement to review it annually. Board president Kim De Serpa said a main driver for her yes vote is rising gun violence across the country, particularly in and around schools. The Washington Post reports that there have been more than 200 mass shootings in the U.S. so far this year, of which at least 27 occurred at school, according to Education Week.

“If an armed officer on campus can save even one life, that’s something that I’m positively in favor of,” De Serpa told Lookout.

In addition to funding the program, the school board expanded it to Pajaro Valley High School. Having the program at all three district high schools will cost the district $1,235,550 annually. SROs had been on some PVUSD campuses for up to two decades, but in the summer of 2020, the board had voted to remove them amid national protests against police brutality and police profiling of historically marginalized groups.

Prior to the board’s 6-0-1 vote, Assistant Superintendent Kristen Shouse gave a presentation on data and surveys collected about the pilot program.

The district did two surveys to assess the programs: One survey asked for feedback from students/families who had direct contact with the program, and the other asked the general population what they thought about the program.

Generally, those surveys have shown that students, parents and staff reported positive experiences with the program, though students have reported the most concerns, as detailed below.

“Profiling,” or disproportionate contact between students of color and the program, has long been a controversial aspect of such policing initiatives here and elsewhere. Survey data shows that Latino students were disproportionately in contact with the program at Aptos High, while no disparity came up at Watsonville High. Watsonville High is 95.1% Latino; Aptos High is 39.97% Latino.

Following the presentation, all nine public speakers — who included members of the district-appointed independent committee tasked with reviewing the program, teachers and parents — criticized the program and or said it should be ended. Several speakers said the money should be spent on hiring more social emotional counselors or supervisors.

An outspoken opponent of the program, Watsonville High teacher Travis Walker, recalled how research presented by the district ahead of the reinstatement of the program showed how Latino students are disproportionately affected. He also challenged the idea that SROs prevent incidents from occurring.

“There is no evidence that police reduce violence — that again comes from your own research that you collected. Just the other day there was a fight at Watsonville High School right in front of the SRO’s office. The SRO was nowhere to be found,” he said during the board meeting. “I don’t say that to be judgy, just as a matter of fact that SROs on campus doesn’t necessarily mean they’re there to prevent violence. You know who did? A teacher, and [they] got punched in the process.”

Can officials say SROs prevented incidents from occurring?

The day after the Aug. 31, 2021, killing of the Aptos High student, Sheriff Jim Hart referenced the decision to remove SROs and told Lookout, “Unfortunately, they have indicated that they don’t want any interaction with law enforcement now, so here we are.”

At the time, PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said she didn’t think having an SRO on campus during this specific incident would have helped because it occurred in an isolated area.

With several months of data on the pilot program, are officials able to say whether or not SROs help to prevent incidents? They say it’s too soon, or too difficult, to say.

Lookout requested data from the Watsonville Police Department and the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office about incidents from the past five years on the Watsonville and Aptos high school campuses. The goal: to understand whether having an SRO on campus affected the number of incidents that have occurred. The departments told Lookout last week they didn’t collect that data or didn’t yet have it available.

Aptos High School 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)

Sheriff Hart, Superintendent Rodriguez and Watsonville Police Chief Jorge Zamora say while it’s too difficult to say if having the SROs prevented any incidents, they felt that the response to incidents was improved by having them on campus. In addition, they feel a greater number of community members support the program so far.

Hart said it’s difficult to prove a negative, or to say that they prevented “X, Y, and Z from happening because we don’t know.”

“It’s hard to say that we were there, and nothing happened and so the program works,” he said. “All we know is that there was a lot of tension on that campus early on. We had the one horrific event that occurred on the campus. And with the school resource officer and the mental health professional on campus, nothing remotely that bad occurred.”

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He added that he feels confident having SROs on campus helps with early intervention in the case of threats, and that is “good prevention from something catastrophic happening.”

Rodriguez said generally she doesn’t know if having the SROs has curbed the number of incidents, but she feels it did improve the response to incidents. She added it’s too soon to know about the impact on prevention.

“I still believe that incidents can and do happen with SROs present on campus,” she said. “SROs can only be in so many locations at once.”

However, she said, having someone on campus with a direct connection to the police department, for example, does expedite the response.

“And there have been a few concerns just in these last several months, where having an SRO on campus that had direct access to fellow officers proved to be helpful,” she said.

Watsonville Police Chief Zamora expressed a similar sentiment, saying the officer did help play a role in coordinating resources and that it’s too hard to say if incidents were prevented directly as a result of the presence of the SRO.

“So has it [prevented incidents?]” he said. “I believe that it’s created an environment where people who are likely to commit crimes know that the police are there … most people aren’t going to commit a crime knowing a police officer is nearby.”

Do students, teachers and parents feel comfortable with SROs?

The district conducted two surveys related to the program. One survey focused on students and their families who interacted with the program directly. The other reached out more broadly to students and families and staff from both Aptos High and Watsonville High.

Questions and prompts from the two surveys included:

  • “I felt heard and understood during the interactions?”
  • “I now know what resources and or options are available to assist me in my situation?”
  • “Having the mental health clinician and school resource officer team at my school makes me feel safe.”
  • “All students are treated equally by the mental health clinician and the SRO team.”

Students, families and staff then responded that they either strongly agreed, agreed, disagreed, strongly disagreed or felt neutral.

Of the students and family members who interacted with the SRO and or mental health clinician directly at the high schools and who agreed to respond anonymously to a survey, 64.4% said they strongly agreed or agreed that they felt heard and understood during the interaction.

And 71% said they strongly agreed or agreed that the interaction was respectful and positive, while 13% strongly disagreed or disagreed.

“What we found is that the majority of our students, staff and parents felt that the pairing was effective, and that it helped provide the support that we needed,” Rodriguez said. “So whether it was the feeling of safety coupled with the reason why we started the unique pairing, which is just ensuring that we are doing, you know, equitable, unbiased practices with our students.”

In the broader survey that included 938 responses from students, parents and staff members — and included 85 responses from students who had direct interactions with the program — district members were asked additional questions such as whether or not they felt safe with an SRO on campus or if they felt students were treated equally.

Students have been split between reporting neutral interactions or saying agreeing that they felt safe: 47.6% said they agreed they felt safe, 47.6% said they felt neutral and 4.8% said they disagreed.

As for parents, 76.1% agreed that having the team at their child’s school made them feel safe, 17% said they felt neutral and 6.9% said they disagreed.

A Santa Cruz Sheriff car parked in front of Aptos High.
A Santa Cruz Sheriff car parked in front of Aptos High.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Disparity at Aptos High

The pilot program responded to 65 referrals at Aptos High and 87 referrals at Watsonville High in the four months when data was collected. The number doesn’t reflect the individual number of students involved, but only the number of referrals — meaning one student could have several referrals. Administrators, support staff teachers, students and guardians can “refer” a student whom they think needs services from the pilot program.

The data shows that the program at Watsonville High — where 95.1% identify as Hispanic/Latino — didn’t record a disparity in contact between the program and students, but the program at Aptos High did. While Hispanic/Latino students represent 39.97% of the student population there, they made up 58.7% of the referrals compared to white students, who made up 34.9%.

When discussing this disparity during the presentation, Assistant Superintendent Shouse said it’s important to consider that referrals don’t only include acting-out incidents, For example, she said, at Aptos High, about 53.5% of the referrals focused on needed mental health support or preventative interactions.

Board president De Serpa noted the disparity, but said she wasn’t yet prepared to respond to the question of how the district is addressing the disparity as it works to make the overall program successful.

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