Santa Ynez Vice Principal Finds ‘Peace’ Amid Storm of Complaints

Peter Haws Accused of Racism, Abuse of Authority; Supporters Describe a ‘Good Man’ and Devout Servant of the Underserved

Santa Ynez Vice Principal Finds ‘Peace’

Amid Storm of Complaints

Peter Haws Accused of Racism, Abuse of Authority;

Supporters Describe a ‘Good Man’ and

Devout Servant of the Underserved

By Tyler Hayden | April 5, 2023

Santa Ynez Valley High School and Vice Principal Peter Haws | Credit: Courtesy

Peter Haws is used to being the bad cop. With 27 years of experience in education — the last eight and a half as vice principal and head disciplinarian at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School (SYVUHS) — he’s heard it all. 

“I have learned to let it roll off, understanding that people like to dislike an administrator who works with student behavior,” Haws said at a recent expulsion hearing. “That’s my life.”

The expulsion hearing was for Juan Rubio, a 16-year-old student who was forcefully sedated and arrested in January after he was suspected of smoking marijuana in a campus bathroom. Rubio had refused to accompany Haws and a resource deputy to a private office to be searched. He then became combative when the pair followed and confronted him in his third-period classroom, cleared it of other students, and blocked his attempts to leave. 

The incident sparked an uproar at the public school and in the Santa Ynez community, with many questioning the tactics of the two adults as they isolated and cornered a minor with mental health challenges documented in his Individualized Education Program, or IEP. Before he was handcuffed to a stretcher, shrieking, a search of Rubio’s pockets turned up a vape pen and two THC cartridges. The district has launched an independent investigation into allegations of negligence and excessive force. The findings are expected to be published next month.

Heather Zakson, the legal director of the Learning Rights Law Center in Los Angeles, reviewed Rubio’s case. In her 30 years of practice, Zakson said, she’d never encountered an incident so “horrifying.” “This goes beyond the pale,” she said. Educators are supposed to “raise children in school,” she said, “and we don’t raise children by tying them up and shooting them up full of sedatives. That’s like the Dark Ages.”

Rubio’s arrest uncorked a wave of complaints specifically against Haws, many of them apparently longstanding, including charges of racism as well as suggestions he lacks the understanding needed to work with students with mental health diagnoses. Those grievances have been aired in interviews, during recent school board meetings, and in an online petition calling for Haws’s firing.

The petition was created by alumnus Kendra Mercado, class of ’21, who claimed Haws has a history of “targeting and profiling non-white students.” “Please join us in calling for an end to this incessant racial discrimination and help us create a safe learning environment,” Mercado wrote, “something that is not possible as long as Haws remains at the school.” More than 4,000 people have signed on, with many providing their names and graduation years to echo Mercado’s sentiments.

“Peter Haws has been a controversial fixture at SYVUHS for years, including the entirety of my time at the school,” said Carson Knight, class of ’19. “Friends, acquaintances, and teachers alike have all regularly voiced concerns over Mr. Haws’s disproportionately harsh treatment of minorities.”

“Peter Haws made me uncomfortable many times in high school, and many people I know had the same experience with him,” said a 2016 graduate. “He would abuse his authority and make you feel horrible, just because you were a student and had no power.”

According to public records, Santa Ynez High — whose 840-student population is approximately half-white, half-Latino — has logged 534 disciplinary cases against Latino students so far this year. That’s compared to 203 for their white peers. The citations include truancy, dress code violations, drug possession, “defiance of authority,” and so on. For all of last year, those figures were 631 and 400, respectively.

“We take any allegations of discrimination seriously and use them as opportunities for learning,” said Principal Michael Niehoff, who just assumed his position this year. “We’ve been actively working with students and staff to promote a positive campus climate,” he said, by hosting an S.Y.V. Latino Leadership Conference, celebrating Black History Month for the first time, and starting a No Place for Hate anti-bullying campaign. 

Despite these initiatives, the campus continues to face criticism. The Santa Maria–Lompoc chapter of the NAACP issued a statement describing a general uptick in “racism, hate, bigotry, and anti-Blackness” in the region. “They [SYVUHS] have a problem,” said chapter president Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt.

Last month, detectives arrested two suspects for stealing gay pride flags from a nearby church and burning one while filming it on social media. The pair was charged with hate crimes. Both are Santa Ynez High graduates.

And just last week, after giving permission to a student organization, the Gender Sexuality Alliance, to paint temporary rainbows on school crosswalks celebrating LGBTQ+ pride, administrators canceled the agreement two days later. Students arrived on campus to find the four crosswalks painted white. Niehoff and Superintendent Andrew Schwab said they’d changed their minds, explaining that “schools should not be politicized or used for outside agendas that cause division or disrupt school activities.” At the same time, the school’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Coordinator was removed from her post.

Character Witnesses

During the expulsion hearing, Haws said he was “stunned and astonished” by accusations of bias. Rubio, he argued, was “dangerous” and an ongoing safety threat to the campus and ought to be removed. “This case has nothing to do with bias,” he said. “I live by a moral code that is very important to me.”

During an all-staff meeting last month, Haws said while the fallout had been painful, he was also “feeling a lot of peace.” “Because I know the truth,” he said. At that same meeting, Principal Niehoff lamented, “In the last couple of years, we’ve seen these kinds of attacks on teachers and coaches,” he said, invoking the terms “cancel culture” and “tribalism.”

Dozens of people have come forward to defend Haws, pointing to his lifelong interest in Latin American culture, beginning with his missionary work in Bolivia and extending throughout his career, earlier as the director of migrant student and English-learner programs in Santa Maria and currently as the only Spanish-speaking member of Santa Ynez’s administration.

The first person to take the mic on Haws’s behalf at a February board meeting was Karen Jones, a multigenerational valley resident who leads the Santa Ynez Community Services District and who created her own local controversy by participating in the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Jones said any critiques of Haws were “upside down” as Rubio was the one who broke the law. “I think people should get down to facts,” she said.

Alumnus Teri Harmon thanked Haws for “doing the right thing” and protecting the campus from drugs and bad behavior. Without the enforcement of rules, she said, the school could easily slip into “chaos, fear, and anarchy.”

Joanne Clark, an alum, a parent of two graduates, and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, where Haws is president of the Santa Barbara Stake (region) and its 11 congregations, said, “Mr. Haws is an honest, diligent, hardworking, caring individual who follows the rules and guidelines he’s expected to follow. To claim he is racially biased against anyone, in my estimation, is just not possible.”

Dean Reece, a 50-year educator who served as a principal in Santa Maria, called Haws a “super guy.” When he supervised Haws, he noticed Haws had a higher disciplinary rate than the other administrators, but believed it was because Haws was “fighting more” for the students than his colleagues.

Jorge Gonzalez and Claudio Garcia, also members of Haws’s congregation, both called him “a good man” who cares deeply about the Spanish community.

Longtime English teacher and former Buellton mayor John Connolly described Haws as “one of the most moral persons I’ve ever met in my life,” saying, “Let’s not write a fake narrative by turning the enforcers into the perpetrators. Let’s not make those who commit the crimes the heroes.”

Haws declined to be interviewed for this story but offered this statement: “Creating a safe and welcoming school climate and culture has been my life’s work as an educator. I look forward to receiving the results of the independent investigation the district is conducting. Along with the Santa Ynez High School team, I continue my focused and dedicated work to create a positive, safe, rigorous, and high-achieving environment of learning for each and every student on campus in an equitable and respectful manner.”

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Rubio Case Resolution

Many observers thought Rubio’s expulsion was a foregone conclusion. But to their surprise, and to the relief of Rubio and his family, the district board overruled Haws’s recommendation and gave Rubio a “suspended” expulsion rather than an immediate one. This means that Rubio must attend Refugio, a continuation school, for two semesters and receive counseling, complete anger management and substance abuse courses, and perform community service before returning to Santa Ynez.

“Thanks very much to all of you for your help,” Rubio’s mother texted to supporters before they gathered for dinner to celebrate. “A thousand blessings.”

Even though Rubio was given the option to return to Santa Ynez once he completes his requirements at Refugio, he likely won’t come back, said his sister Viviana Rubio-Herrera. The family continues to take issue with the school labeling him “violent” and “aggressive,” she said. 

And Rubio, who struggles with severe anxiety and depression, never wants to interact with Haws again. His sister said, “The abuse of authority was just so ugly.” So far, Refugio seems to be a better fit anyway, Rubio-Herrera explained. “He really likes it. He’s more comfortable.”

Public testimony provided at an earlier hearing by Haws and the campus resource officer, Senior Deputy Joe Parker, a 24-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, offered insight into their thought processes during Rubio’s detainment.

Parker admitted he was “annoyed” that Rubio had ignored his commands to be searched and kept walking away from him, with Rubio swearing at Parker over his shoulder as he went. “I had a feeling that things weren’t going the way I wanted them to,” Parker stated, “and I think my demeanor was uncomfortable.” He said while he had received de-escalation training, he deferred to Haws to talk Rubio down. 

Parker also acknowledged that he didn’t realize Rubio had an IEP, and that if he had known, he may have approached things differently. “Usually, when that’s a known factor, we do have a different policy,” he said. That policy states that if an IEP student becomes physically assaultive, special education staff trained for such incidents are to intervene first, then call on the deputy if needed. 

According to recent statements by Parker’s superiors, the Sheriff’s Office will likely not be renewing its contract with the school when the accompanying three-year grant expires next month. Department spokesperson Raquel Zick said, however, that the official decision has not yet been made. 

[Update: Zick provided a clarifying statement from Undersheriff Craig Bonner about the department’s contract with SYVUHS. “Once the 3-year grant period expires, we are absolutely willing and interested in continuing the provision of these enhanced community-policing services to the Santa Ynez High School students, faculty and families,” Bonner said. “Because this position is grant funded, there is no current service contract for the Sheriff’s Office to renew (or not). Furthermore, because the state grant funding will end during the upcoming fiscal year, the continued provision of these services would require that the School District transition to a formal service contract with the County, which does not presently exist.  We intend to continue discussions with Santa Ynez High School leadership about the possibility of continuing these services once the grant ends.”]

For his part, Haws said he’d been trained in de-escalation techniques and pleaded with Rubio again and again to calm down. He said he and Parker decided to clear the classroom of students for everyone’s safety and then “passively impede” Rubio from leaving. “We were simply obstructing his pathway to the door and asking him to sit down,” Haws said. They also closed the blinds and held the door shut to prevent Rubio’s friends — who’d gathered outside and were agitated and angry — from interfering, he said.

Once Rubio realized there was no escape, he threw his backpack and overturned a desk. Then, as he tried to push his way past Parker, Haws said he took hold of Rubio’s arm to stop him from “slithering” past them. Haws stated that when the first backup deputy arrived, Rubio appeared to reach for her Taser. Rubio disputed this, saying he was flailing as he was being pinned to the floor.

Haws also referenced an incident last April at Lompoc High School, which Rubio then attended, where Rubio, also suspected of using marijuana, attempted to flee when a campus deputy was about to search him. 

Haws was incredulous when Rubio’s family attorney asked him about allegations that racism played a part in his actions. How, Haws asked, could a person be racist if they have “spent two years in a country at their own expense, learning the language they don’t speak, looking different than all those people, being of a different religious background than those people,” and then go on to study Latin American history before devoting his career to serving the valley’s Spanish-speaking population? Moreover, Haws said, “my daughter is married to a Latino man.”

In her statements to the board, Rubio’s sister said if there was any silver lining to what happened to her brother, it’s that she and others found they had a voice to protest what they see as a pattern of injustice at the school. “It’s going to be used,” she promised, “from here on out.”

Mental Health Blind Spot?

One of the first voices to be heard at a March board meeting belonged to Jillian Knight. Knight, whose children are third-generation SYVUHS students, called Rubio’s treatment not only outrageous but also “biased and unfair.” Just weeks before Rubio was arrested, she claimed, a white student was found in possession of a knife, alcohol, and tobacco on campus. He received only a short suspension, and the police were never called.

In another recent incident, Knight said, a student, also white, was caught smoking marijuana at a school dance and was allegedly not disciplined at all, even though it was the second offense. “That student’s parent is a contracted staff member in a position of authority,” Knight said. Is that fair? she asked. “Absolutely not.”

Knight also wondered why Rubio’s mental health history was seemingly ignored that day. She suggested the school partake in the Transitions program in Santa Maria, which offers free mental health crisis training to educators. All other schools in the region are enrolled, Knight said. Why isn’t Santa Ynez?

In an interview, an alumnus who wished to only be identified by her initials, IG, said she suffers from such bad panic attacks that she sometimes blacks out. After an episode on campus one day, IG said she awoke in Haws’s office. She asked him how long she’d been out. “He just stared at me like I was crazy,” she said. “He really doesn’t know how to handle students with mental health disorders.”

Toward the end of the board meeting, a 2021 graduate named Maclaine Watson got up to speak. She said she drove four hours during her finals week at UC Santa Cruz to address the board.

“Mr. Haws and I have a long history, as he was friends of my parents for years, as well as an ecclesiastical leader of mine outside of the school setting,” Watson said. “Unfortunately, I have had many interactions with Mr. Haws that have been personally damaging to me and my family, and we no longer have contact with him as a result.”

Those interactions, Watson said, proved to her that Haws lacks “even the most elementary understanding of widespread mental health challenges in adolescents.” She said he once asked her why she was depressed and suicidal, given that she had “a good family and a nice home.” “On another occasion,” Watson claimed, “he told me God was angry and disappointed in me for disrespecting my body, as I had self-harmed and ended up in the hospital.”

Nearly half of all adolescents — 49.5 percent — have a diagnosable mental health disorder, with 22.2 percent struggling with a severe impairment, Watson continued, citing statistics from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. If Haws is to keep his job, Watson said, the board should require that he receive extensive training on the subject of mental health. “Though my experience shows,” Watson said, “that he should not be trusted to keep almost 50 percent of our student body safe.”

Watson’s father, Matt, also spoke, saying he’d been Haws’s right-hand man at their church for more than 10 years. “I found that he simply does not believe in mental health,” Watson said. He regretted not speaking up sooner, claiming Haws had even told Maclaine to stop taking her medication. “What kind of person would do that?” he asked.

In an email exchange, Haws’s wife, Gretchen, called Maclaine’s statements “irrelevant, misleading, and, in some cases, blatantly false.” Her allegations have nothing to do with Haws’s role as vice principal, she said. “Additionally,” Gretchen continued, “these events transpired between three to four years ago, and our society has significantly advanced its knowledge of mental health since that time.”

Gretchen said Matt was “mistaken” in his assessment of her husband. “Those who know him understand that he is a multicultural and multilingual, collaborative, and cooperative servant leader,” she said. “He strives to live a life of integrity and selfless service to others.” Maclaine Watson said her family stands by their statements. 


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