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Scotts Valley
July 24, 2024

Scotts Valley boy’s suicide prompts calls for SVUSD to address issues

Red was 15-year-old Scotts Valley High School freshman Mateo Deihl’s favorite color. Now, attendees at his Celebration of Life, to be held at Roaring Camp in Felton on Saturday, have been asked to adorn themselves in this hue, in his memory.

The boy is to be buried in a red shirt he liked to wear.

It was a very different kind of Scotts Valley Unified School District board meeting Tuesday evening, as administrators listened to parents speak in quivering voices about the impact of a boy who speakers say faced racial bullying and died by suicide.

Teacher John Postovit mentioned it in his report to the board.

“At the high school we have obviously had a pretty bad week this past week, with regards to the tragic death at the school,” he said, referring to the suicide, which was discovered on the morning of Feb. 3. “Students, of course, found out about it late in the week, and they held a memorial service.”

The campus vigils were a good way for students to memorialize Mateo, Postovit added.

“Teachers are, of course, continuing to talk with students as necessary, and counselors are, every day, talking with students,” he said. “So, we are working through it, trying our best to help the students.”

Mateo’s death not only set off a wave of sadness within the Scotts Valley community, but it has also forced educators to reckon with diversity issues on campus.

The day after her son’s death, Regina took to a moms’ group on Facebook to highlight the racist behavior she says the boy faced at school.

“I have been sobbing all day but decided to look at my phone,” she said. “I want you to know something about my son. My son’s name was Mateo. He was sweet, kind and polite. He came to us from the foster care system at 7. He had been severely abused and neglected for years. As a result, he was tremendously empathetic towards other kids.”

But while her son received the I Care Award for being compassionate to others while at the district’s middle school, he’d also faced serious difficulties, Regina says.

“He was bullied mercilessly for his race (he was Hispanic) and the other kids told him he was annoying,” she said. “Recently some kids stopped talking to him because they were afraid he would report their drug use to the office.”

Both middle and high school administrators “were aware of the situations but did nothing substantive,” she added.

A survey conducted by the district last year found that, although high school students felt teachers create a safe and welcoming environment most of the time, they also felt the school is least welcoming of students from different racial or ethnic backgrounds.

“I’ve heard kids talk to me about how other students (Black students) are lesser, using the n-word, all four years of high school,” one anonymous respondent wrote. “There is a serious race discrimination problem among the students and it needs to be addressed earlier.”

In November, SVUSD approved a $13,000 contract with Phoenix, Arizona-based Inclusion Counts, LLC to conduct diversity training.

During the public comment period, parents acknowledged SVUSD has been taking steps to stamp out racism. But they also demanded more action.

Elizabeth Anderson said the community failed Mateo.

“I’m just feeling devastated,” she said. “We weren’t able to be there for Mateo in his life, and I think we owe it to him to honor his loss and his death.”

Anderson gave the district credit for starting multiple initiatives to stem the tide of bigotry and racism but called on administrators to create a crisis-intervention plan.

“The reality is they weren’t enough,” she said. “What are we truly willing to do—as a community—to never have to do this again?”

Another woman, who identified herself as Courtney, said she moved to Scotts Valley four years ago in large part because of the high marks SVUSD gets for academics. But she said she’s now second-guessing that decision, based on “countless” reports of bullying.

“Our schools need to be safe places to send our children, first and foremost,” she said. “I am concerned that there is a pattern of this.”

Bryan McQueen, the parent of a child at Vine Hill Elementary School, said he wants SVUSD to take diversity issues seriously.

“Having our children feel accepted is very important to us,” he said. “We’re looking at Scotts Valley and seeing it in kind of a dangerous way. It can feel like the lack of diversity could be causing a hostile environment.”

Trustee Roger Snyder said he was “heartbroken” and “speechless” at the news of Mateo’s death.

“I just want to acknowledge that this was a terrible week,” he said. “It’s clear that there’s more for us to consider.”

In an interview with the Press Banner, Mateo’s mom Regina said she wants to see bullying, drug use and racial equity issues dealt with by the district.

She said prior to the pandemic, in a conversation with the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, she learned that SVUSD had been offered trauma-informed teaching resources but had declined them.

Just weeks ago, they had just negotiated a 504 plan for Mateo, who had PTSD, Regina said—a 504 plan is a federally-instituted system that makes accommodations for students with disabilities so they can learn more effectively. But a teacher wouldn’t allow her son to have an extension on a test after a computer glitch prevented him from studying, despite that being part of the plan, she said.

“Teachers are not properly trained,” she said. “Or at least this teacher did not know that they needed to follow these plans.”

Mateo was also subjected to racial comments and jokes to do with his Hispanic heritage, she added.

“What we need is actual action,” she said. “The goal is to get these problems fixed.”

Regina says she doesn’t believe the way the district has implemented its restorative justice program is working.

“We want Mateo’s legacy to be an improvement in the systems that support vulnerable children,” she said. “He endured a great deal while he was in the schools here, and unfortunately, those issues—which I certainly brought up with the school district—have not been rectified.”

Ashley Perlitch, the moderator of the Scotts Valley Families for Social Justice Facebook page, noted concerned parents are welcome to join the Scotts Valley Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Community Group, which works on these issues.

Mateo’s mom says she wants to see more suicide prevention and mental-health outreach instituted. 

She paused for a moment, as she reflected on her son’s terrific sense of humor.

“He always did want to see other people smiling,” she said. “He was an incredible kid.”

The Celebration of Life is set for Saturday at 3pm at Roaring Camp in Felton.

Drew Penner
Drew Penner
Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].


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