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School resource officer debate reignites

By Phil Gomez

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    SANTA CRUZ, California (KSBW) — The Pajaro Valley Unified School District is holding a special meeting Wednesday at the Henry Mello Center on Beach Street following the murder of a 17-year-old student at Aptos High two weeks ago. The meeting comes as the debate over school resource officers (SROs) re-ignites.

Many parents are calling on the district to reinstate the SRO program. Now the board could decide to reinstate the program, or they might decide to continue only with their social-emotional programs for students or they could approve both into the district.

“We have a school resource deputy assigned to Soquel and he was able to act quickly,” said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart.

In 2017, a school resource officer was credited with identifying an armed student on Soquel High’s campus. Outside of that, the sheriff’s office could only identify another time where a student was arrested by an SRO in the past two school years.

Some believe their presence makes campuses safer and is a needed security measure after the Aptos High School murder earlier this month.

“When things are happening, they can head off those problems and not get kids into trouble but stop the incident before kids actually get into trouble,” Hart said.

Last June there was strong enough momentum to convince Pajaro Unified to move money away from school resource officers for the first time in decades. Instead, the board invested in the social-emotional needs of students.

“I think we should replace SROs with therapists, counselors and behavior-trained staff that can overcome challenges in our school settings,” said one speaker at a past school board meeting.

“School District Data and county-wide incarceration reflects a school-to-prisons pipeline that disproportionately affects young people,” another speaker said.

Daisy Brooks works for the district and has two children who attend school in district, too. “I just thought; let me start up a petition, just to see where it goes,” Brooks said.

As a parent, she was impacted by the Aptos High murder and started a petition drive. She has a goal to collect 1,500 signatures to bring SROs back into schools and plans to present them to trustees Wednesday night.

“I know there are some talks about the past and what happened and removing the SROs to me, we can’t look at the past. We have to move forward and let’s not put the blame as a community, let’s focus and put SROs back into our schools,” Brooks said.

If the board votes to reinstate its SRO police, Watsonville and Pajaro High would be under the jurisdiction of the Watsonville Police Department. The sheriff’s office would be in charge of Aptos High.

“Anecdotally and just common sense shows you having the presence of an SRO on campus, somebody who has access to a lot of resources, all of the resources that the sheriff’s office has and is a presence that can work with the kids and the administrators,” Sheriff Hart said.

“Probably, one of the biggest benefits of having an SRO, an officer on campus is the relationship that they’re able to develop with not only the students but with the family and that allows them to tailor their assistance that they’re providing to those individuals,” said Watsonville Interim Police Chief Thomas Sims.

Antonio Vivó is a teacher in the Social Sciences Department at Aptos High.

He says he’s not against SRO’s but would prefer to have programs in place that provide counseling and support for students.

“We need to have support systems, especially for Latinx. Those kids on the boundaries that are long term and there at school all day,” Vivó said.

Many parents say extra support is needed just to address the toll of the pandemic.

On top of Covid, the violence, leaving many kids feeling they’re in an unsafe environment.

Pajaro Valley Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Michelle Rodriguez said one-time federal funding allows more flexibility of what the district can now provide.

“We believe in listening to our community and then pivoting where necessary and that’ exactly what’s happening right now. We’re reevaluating what does our community need at this moment? And how can we do best for students,” Rodriguez said.

Extra security is also in the works including more cameras on campus.

Improving cell service, adding more campus supervisors and double-checking emergency messages are delivered to those who they are intended.

If SRO are approved by trustees, Watsonville police say it will take time to return officers to campuses while the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office said a deputy would return to Aptos High campus within two weeks.

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