On a recent Thursday morning at Pilarcitos High School, San Mateo County Sheriff’s Deputy Shawn Chase strode purposefully across the classroom, his hands clasped behind his back. A cluster of Cunha Intermediate School students sat at the front of the room, while older Pilarcitos peers lined the perimeter.
“There are a lot of people your age who do alcohol and drugs or are in gangs,” he said to a Pilarcitos student. “How do you try and avoid that?
“I know you’re being surrounded by them,” Chase continued after a momentary pause. “I mean, if you wanted to do drugs, they’re available, right? If you wanted to drink, you could drink anytime you want. Why don’t you?”
“It’s up to everyone to decide whether to do it or not,” the student answered with a shrug.
“I don’t do drugs,” one of his classmates echoed. “But everyone does their own thing.”
The morning’s candid conversation provided a window into Coyote Society: a weekly mentoring group led by Chase, a school resource officer. Every Thursday, Chase brings up to a dozen “at-risk” Cunha students to the alternative school’s campus. Through structured discussions facilitated by Chase, the students talk about weighty, real-life issues as the high- schoolers help steer their less-experienced peers into making good choices — and hopefully avoiding mistakes they themselves have made.
Last week, the students considered what they would do differently if they could go back and relive their years at Cunha, one of the morning’s three discussion prompts. One student admitted wishing he had worked harder to earn better grades. Another shared that she would have made more of an attempt to show up to class on time.
“You’re at Pilarcitos for a reason, right?” Chase said at one point. “You made a lot of bad choices to get here, but now, what are you doing?”
“Graduating,” a Pilarcitos student answered with a faint smile.
The students also spoke of the role models in their lives. Chase reminded the high-schoolers how important it was for them to embrace their status as mentors for the younger generation.
“Because you’re digging yourself out of that hole and going to college,” he said.
But, repeatedly, the pendulum swung back to the issues of drugs, alcohol and gangs. Whenever the Pilarcitos students seemed reluctant to dispense words of wisdom, Chase encouraged them to speak directly to their younger Cunha peers at the front of the room.
“From personal experience, (drugs and alcohol) drag you away from what you’re supposed to be focusing on, which is school,” one student said.
Several times during the meeting, Chase shared some of his own struggles as an adolescent, and even as an adult, with drug use and gang activity.
“For me, and I’ve told you guys (this) before, but I started doing drugs when I was really, really young,” Chase said. “I drank most of the time, and my dad was an alcoholic. Living with that, as many of you know, if you have someone with a drinking problem in your household, it’s not a good thing.
“For gangs, one of my sons was a gang member,” he continued. “He had all the tattoos and all (that), but he didn’t make it. He only made it until he was about 22 years old. And that was the end.”
Chase said that since launching Coyote Society five years ago, he’s worked hard to maintain close relationships with his students. He said the program provides a rare opportunity for kids and adolescents to view law enforcement in a different light.
“Before, the only time they saw law enforcement coming to their school was when someone was going to be arrested,” he added. “Now, I’m accepted into the school. Even when they graduate, they’ll call me and say, ‘What’s going on?’ And we catch up.”
During last week’s meeting, former Pilarcitos student Nayaly Procopio came back to visit. Procopio, one of Coyote Society’s original members in 2013, said she remembers when the group would meet in the two large trailers that then served as the school’s facilities.
“For the past five years, you’ve been my role model,” said Procopio to Chase, her voice wavering slightly.
“Thank you,” said Chase. “But why? Why am I your role model?”
“You stuck around,” Procopio replied. “You didn’t leave.”