WATSONVILLE—The Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees on May 11 unanimously voted to continue a program at two high schools in which law enforcement officers are paired with mental health clinicians, and to bring the program to a third school.

The School Resource Officer program began at Aptos High on Nov. 16, and at Watsonville High on Jan. 13. It will now come to Pajaro Valley High School.

The program cost $537,757 in 2021-22. With the addition of PVHS, it will be just over $1.2 million, a cost PVUSD Chief Business Officer Clint Rucker said the district can afford.

The trustees also agreed to review the program annually, and to increase safety and de-escalation training for all school staff, as well as training for staff in working with students with disabilities.

The discussion was also a chance for the board to hear a report from the Mental Health and School Resource Officer (SRO) Pilot Committee, which has gathered and compiled data since the teams were formed.

According to the report, the teams responded to 65 referrals at Aptos High as of April 26, and 87 at Watsonville High.

The teams also responded to referrals at Aptos Junior High, Watsonville Charter School of the Arts, Pacific Coast Charter School, Cesar Chavez Middle and Pajaro Valley High.

PVUSD’s SRO program has become a contentious issue, with some saying that the presence of armed police officers is intimidating, and that the focus on punitive measures inordinately affects certain students. Others say that having police presence on campus can help stop violent incidents and adds a much-needed air of safety.

The trustees in July 2020 eliminated the program districtwide, opting instead to divert the money to socio-emotional counselors. That discussion followed more than 40 public comments, the majority of which called for the removal of SROs.

The discussion was rekindled after a student was stabbed to death on the Aptos High School campus on Aug. 31, 2021, and the trustees reversed the decision about two weeks later, agreeing to pair the officers with mental health workers.

A total of nine people addressed the board, all of them speaking against the program.

“The thought of my second-graders attending a high school, sooner than I know it, with armed officers is a very scary and very sad thought,” said Radcliffe Elementary second grade teacher Rebecca Royston. “Our district does not have the time or funds to invest in a program that has no conclusive evidence that SROs presence increases safety.”

Watsonville High social studies teacher Travis Walker cited research that shows schools with police on campus negatively affect students of color.

“There is nothing that suggests in the research I could see that your program is somehow different than any other program that puts police on campus,” he said. “We are taking a step in the wrong direction. Restorative justice does not require police, in fact it’s harmed by having police.”

PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said that the district has shifted its focus to mental health support, going from 13 to 17 socio-emotional counselors and clinicians, and from 10 to 15 mental health clinicians.

Trustee Maria Orozco said she was unsure she wanted to make the program permanent, but said she wanted to see more data by continuing it, at least temporarily.

“It’s good to know that we’re being proactive and really looking to expand not only resources, but having those interventions in place for students,” she said. 

Trustee Jennifer Schacher made a motion to bring the program back to the trustees for annual reviews, and to add it to Pajaro Valley High.

Trustee Kim De Serpa pointed to the increasing incidents of gun violence on school campuses nationwide.

“Although an SRO cannot be in all places at all times, if an SRO can prevent any deaths at all on our campuses, I am positively for that,” she said.

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General assignment reporter, covering nearly every beat. I specialize in feature stories, but equally skilled in hard and spot news. Pajaronian/Good Times/Press Banner reporter honored by CSBA. https://pajaronian.com/r-p-reporter-honored-by-csba/


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