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September 23, 2021

PVUSD will reconsider school officer program after fatal Aptos stabbing

APTOS—The stabbing attack that killed an Aptos High School senior Tuesday occurred nearly one year after the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees ended the district’s School Resource Officer program, which placed law enforcement officers on high school campuses.

The district opted instead to shift the funds to social-emotional supports for students. At the time, numerous people urged the board to make the shift, reasoning among other things that the presence of law enforcement made students uncomfortable. Others said that a focus on law enforcement was the wrong approach to deal with students’ issues.

Neither law enforcement nor school district officials have suggested that having an officer on campus would have prevented Tuesday’s attack.

But the incident has prompted the trustees to revisit the issue, and the board plans to hold an emergency meeting on Sept. 15, PVUSD Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez said in a letter Wednesday.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart said he supported the SRO program, which had been in place at Aptos High for 20 years. 

Soquel and San Lorenzo Valley high schools both currently have a sheriff’s deputy on campus, Hart said.

“They are a very good safety precaution to have on campus, whether they interrupt something like this, whether they hear information ahead of time and can stop it, or just the mere presence of police sometimes is a deterrent to commit crimes,” he said.

Santa Cruz County Second District Supervisor Zach Friend, who oversees the Aptos area, says that the attack has disrupted the school’s sense of safety.

“Schools are supposed to be sanctuaries,” he said. “While what’s most important right now is wrapping those students and families in a blanket of support, it’s also essential to take an honest look at what policies or procedures are in place that can ensure schools are safe. I think the SRO is an important piece of school safety and they can be part of a collective approach toward ensuring our kids are safe.”

Trustee Maria Orozco said the decision to end the SRO program was made after listening to community input. She says she stands by the decision to increase support services for students, and that there are no plans to shift that funding.

“We heard that loud and clear,” she said. “And even now, with the increase of the services that were provided to students, it’s still not enough.”

During the emergency meeting, the trustees and district officials will likely discuss how to fund the SRO program, should they elect to relaunch it.

The program cost $405,265 annually for one Watsonville Police officer at Watsonville High School and another at Pajaro Valley High School, and one Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s deputy at Aptos High.

“For me it’s always been about the safety and well-being of students, and I think it’s a conversation we need to have as a community,” Orozco said. “I don’t think we’re able to ignore what happened and the impact it’s having on everyone.”

WPD Interim Chief Thomas Sims says that, even if the district immediately funded the program, it would take around one year to bring the officers back, since they were reassigned and those positions were eliminated. 

That is unfortunate, Sims said, since many students said they liked the program and felt safer with an officer on campus. Many consulted the officers for law enforcement issues and guidance.

“There are so many positives that come from having an officer on campus,” he said. “It builds community, it builds relationships between officers and students.”

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Ashley Keehn says that a deputy would be available to return to the Aptos High campus immediately, should PVUSD restore the SRO program.

Sims stressed that WPD has a good relationship with PVUSD, and will support the district in whatever decision is made.

“We will always do our best to serve our schools,” he said.

Sims says that, during the discussion last year to remove the officers, a small fraction of the community said the program is a “gateway to the prison system,” a notion he called “silly.”

“It’s disturbing to me because it’s not the truth,” he said. “Our officers who are there at the high schools are there to help them, to keep them out of the justice system.”

SROs receive special training to work on school campuses, including implicit bias and de-escalation. They also conduct welfare checks and home visits and connect at-risk students to diversion programs.

“To take that away from the school system was unfortunate,” Sims said. “The presence of police officers prevents crime from happening. That is a fact. And everybody knows that.”

PVUSD Board President Jennifer Holm says the issue is a complex one, and that there are many different ways of looking at safety.

She pointed out that Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where in 2018 a shooter killed 17 people and injured 17 others, had an SRO on campus.

“When you have a senseless tragedy like this, it’s important to reevaluate and take another look,” she said.

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