One year ago, a 15-year-old freshman who exuded universal kindness took his own life. His parents say they detailed in multiple letters to the Scotts Valley Unified School District, over many months, incidents of harassment, discrimination and bullying at the middle and high schools. Those who attended the celebration of Mateo Deihl say they’re hopeful that an increase in kindness and acceptance in a community that has struggled with those virtues will be his legacy.
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Evan Escott was among the 50 kids and adults who packed a Scotts Valley High School classroom Friday for a tearful one-year anniversary commemoration of Mateo Deihl’s death. He was Mateo’s best friend.
The tall, 15-year-old sophomore towered above his late friend, whom people knew for his big brown puppy dog eyes, effervescent smile and kindness. He said most of the people gathered in that room during a rainy lunch period just wanted to tell Mateo stories.
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“One kid remembered walking into a class, seeing no empty seats and so he sat on the floor,” he said. “Mateo saw him, got up from his seat and went to sit next to him so he wouldn’t be alone.”
Evan said the large turnout, and surplus of red “Be Kind” bracelets being handed out, was an indication of a greater understanding that kindness counts on a campus that was rocked by Mateo’s suicide death one year ago.
“The whole school got to have a voice and I feel like it definitely brought us all closer,” Evan said. “And it’s one more step toward the end goal of processing and healing and getting better.”
Now a school community — and the greater educational community of Santa Cruz County — grapples with the right forms of help for mental health and bullying concerns that are being taken seriously at a national level.
Scotts Valley High has launched the Hope Squad, with 55 students who meet regularly to talk about issues such as issues of bullying, depression, peer pressure and competition. The County Office of Education is in the process of training 3,000 adults and 2,000 students on mental health first aid.
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Evan said he remains shaken — “It’s day by day” — but that he has the support system in place to help him heal and process the loss. While Mateo was telling his parents about the bullying, Evan said he learned about the bullies only after it was too late.
He figures his friend must not have wanted to burden him and other classmates with that knowledge. “I’m kind of the same way,” he said. “That’s probably what he was thinking.”
When he learned what had happened, Evan’s thinking quickly turned to revenge for the best friend he had so suddenly lost.
“I’m not proud of what I did, but I kind of beat them all up after I found out,” he said. “Which doesn’t help anything.”
County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah recently spoke about the need for better awareness of what to look for with peers who are struggling. “It’s likely that students in need will probably turn to a peer first, so we want to make sure more students are prepared,” he said.
That wasn’t the case with Mateo Deihl. His parents say racial bullying at school prompted his action and have letters to prove they were expressing concern to administrators 17 months prior to Mateo’s death.
Mateo had a strong advocate in his mother, a longtime lawyer in the juvenile justice system. At an age when most people are eyeing retirement, Regina Deihl and her husband, Bill, chose to adopt Mateo and his younger sister, Ellie.
In a letter to Scotts Valley Unified Superintendent Tanya Krause and the school board on Sept. 17, 2020, Deihl wrote: “As you know, multiple instances of discrimination, harassment, intimidation, and bullying on the basis of a student’s race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, and immigration status have occurred in the district.”
Deihl said her goal in taking direct action with the district, whether about specific instances with Mateo, Ellie or the children of other parents she knows, has always been to help make fixes to a system she and many others believe is broken.
A survey of Scotts Valley middle and high school students in 2021 found that 20% feel discriminated against. The survey was part of a Cultural Responsiveness Committee that had formed in October 2020 in response to such complaints.
Last July, Inclusion Counts, the district’s consultant on its diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) strategy, released its 55-page report. It described a community “polarized” around DEIB, saying the district was hampered by “pervasive fear” in handling sensitive situations.
It recommended: “A clear, consistent and calibrated protocol for responding to incidents, preventing escalation, and broadly addressing the community post-incident is recommended to close the communication loop and distill misinformation.”
After the celebration of Mateo, Regina Deihl said it’s been a long year filled with sorrow in her household. But she has also been uplifted by the sector of the community that has galvanized itself around her son’s loss and is committed to making change in his honor.
Deihl said she didn’t intend to speak at Mateo’s celebration. She was just going to bring the red bracelets and Pixy Stix — Mateo’s favorite candy — to hand out. But she ended up telling all those who took their lunch break to be there “how grateful we are to them, how important they are to us.”
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His friends had brought a large photo of Mateo with the family’s German shepherd. “Mateo absolutely loved animals, especially dogs,” Deihl said. “We have three of them.”
A teacher shared the story of how Mateo always said hello to her as he entered the room and always said thank you on the way out.
Evan talked about how he and Mateo would go to the library after school to do their homework and then go to the dog park and watch the dogs. When they met in sixth grade, something just clicked between the two.
“It was just really cool to hang out with him,” Evan said. “He was the happiest person I knew. I never saw him cry or be sad about anything.”
So how does Mateo’s best friend make sense of a loss that seems so senseless?
“I dunno,” he said, “I guess this process of healing is his way of still bringing joy to the community.”