The Stormy (and Symbiotic) Relationship Between Montecito Plaza and SRHS

June 4, 2022

Clusters of students loiter in doorways, awaiting their lunch. Overlapping conversations lay thick in the air.  Planet Juice, the already small cafe, is suffocated by students. In Chipotle, students and backpacks alike crowd the wooden tables. Bagel Street Cafe is packed wall to wall, the few small tables and chairs there are unable to be used due to the throng of people.

This is Montecito during lunchtime at San Rafael High. 

Young students dart around, laughing at each other or being entertained when a friend jumps up to smack the business signs hanging from above. Everyday shoppers seem to navigate paths that lead to the most minor interaction with the students, only trying to get their groceries and leave. 

Lines out the door are a common occurrence during lunchtime, however, after school at Montecito has a completely different feel. Devoid of students, the pathways are uncluttered, businesses free of students huddling at their doorways. 

The familiar landscape of crumpled bags and discarded wrappers that usually adorn the ground around tables seem to disappear during the off-hours as if whisked away by some force that is only present when students are absent. 

If you are unfamiliar with Montecito Shopping Center, it holds a distinguished place in our community, housing stores and restaurants alike. It was given a new life in 1986 following an acquisition and had been thriving ever since. 

Over a decade ago, the scene around the shopping center offered a different portrait than it does now. 

Stephanie Jodah, a former Montecito employee who began working around 2008, has seen her fair share of kids shuffling in and out of the Rite Aid that she worked at.

Nestled in the corner of the shopping area, Rite Aid stands as a cornerstone of Montecito, where kids flock to purchase candy, drinks, and beauty products. 

“Lunchtime for students was always a challenge,” Jodah recollects. “Hordes would descend on us, usually right after getting food from our neighboring shops in the center.” 

Jodah initially worked as a cashier in the front of the store, and because of this, she “began to get to know some of the SRHS kids.” Despite the sheer number of kids that would gather in Rite Aid, Jodah wanted to note that they weren’t necessarily misbehaving.

“Most of the students were pretty well behaved and polite,” Jodah said. “I have to say that when donation time rolled around each year for Children’s Hospital  your classmates were very very generous and happy to help us raise money.” 

Montecito, at her time, was more so what you would expect from a lunchtime rush, students behaving as well as could be expected, with only some as outliers. 

“We only really had problems with shoplifting in the snacks and toys and (generally) the boys trying to out goof each other,” Jodah mentioned. 

Going off-campus for lunch was what every freshman looked forward to, come the second semester. I remember patiently awaiting the day until I could join the groups of students all heading towards food. In my first year of high school, being off-campus for lunch felt like such a new experience, and a chance to have a little freedom. 

It used to be, kids would typically gather around towards the back of the school in smaller groups, and each would eventually break off during the beginning of lunch to head over en masse to Whole Foods or Montecito.

Now as a senior, being off-campus has lost the shine that once enthralled me as a younger student. I just drive to lunch pretty much every day, and the freedom of a car outweighs whatever freedom my freshman self felt. However, for the underclassmen at this school, being able to go where you want for lunch is still a huge deal. 

Opposite Rite Aid, on the other side of Montecito, lies a semi-circle of shops and clusters of tables, the place where students retreat after acquiring their food from neighboring restaurants. 

In a hard-to-find display of honesty, some SR students at lunch gave their perspectives of what they really saw at Montecito. While other students danced around the topic or flat out avoided discussion altogether, these voices were essential.

San Rafael senior Amelia Cabrales, situated at a wooden bench opposing the groups of tables and chairs, described how eager the sophomores were to “chuck a chair and start a fight.” 

She went on to paint a picture of prior experiences with these boys, such as footballs being thrown across the adjacent parking lot, sometimes hitting cars, and other times sailing in front of drivers. 

“A lot of the students see [Montecito] as an extension of school,” Cabrales said. 

This kind of thinking is especially harmful, since Montecito is home to much more than just students, from other shoppers to business owners, it is not just a spot for students to run rampant. 

Some students at Montecito may not see themselves as an issue at all. Multiple students that I tried to talk to didn’t want to be interviewed or at least didn’t want to comment on the behavior of students at Montecito. 

Even a worker at Montecito, a student at SRHS, believed that the crowds of students getting lunch were a beneficial thing to the overall atmosphere of Montecito.

“Everything’s good, the students make it a better place and more enjoyable. During lunchtime it’s fun,” said junior Imelda Esperanza. 

Having been working at the Montecito Chipotle for the past 7 months as a line worker, Esperanza was used to dealing with crowds of customers, especially when they were all her age. 

“Usually they come in and it causes the restaurant to have a rush,” Esperanza went on. “But it’s okay because I like serving the students and giving them discounts.” 

Other bystanders seem to view these interactions a little differently.

The sophomores in question didn’t seem to want to talk too much about the situation, which seemed to be a trend among underclassmen that I tried to interview. Most seemed nervous about being in an interview and declined. 

One of the sophomore boys, Buddy Ardell, wanted to make it clear that his group was not the troublemakers that others may have thought.  

Lounging around a grated table with extra chairs pulled up next to it, Buddy said that he had gone to Montecito as soon as he was able to. He spent pretty much every lunch there. 

“Kids are good and bad for businesses. There is a lot of trash left which is annoying, but [shops] get business from us,” Ardell said. 

He made sure to note that it was not his group leaving trash around, but other kids. Shoplifting was another issue discussed, although only in the context of it being “a problem of the past.”

It seemed to be a theme that underclassmen seemed to ignore their own negative impact, either saying that everything was fine or putting the blame onto other kids.

“When Tommy’s Bistro was around, it was much more chill,” said another SR senior Liliana Peixotto. “Ben and Royce are the only ones that kids find intimidating.”

Every student reading this will recognize Ben Johnson. One of two SR security guards, he is almost always seen talking or interacting with students, of course on the occasions where he doesn’t have to discipline them. 

Having worked at SR for over two decades, Ben has lived through policy changes, student turnover, and everything in between. He believes in students being able to resolve issues in a mature manner that focuses on a resolution for all. 

“Coming in ‘01, ‘02, ‘03, it was really volatile,” said Ben Johnson. “We had some really strong rules that we enforced. We went through a transition where we never had an altercation or a fight.”

SR policies around misbehavior were shaped toward conflict resolution. Students were able to fill out forms stating what an incident was, who the offender was, and were able to have a sit down to resolve any issues.

“They would manage issues like young adults,” Johnson said. 

This appears to not be the case anymore, with prior policies being shaken in the wake of Covid, and underclassmen running rampant at Montecito. 

“They don’t clean up after themselves. They’ll go to some of the businesses like Chipotle and they’ll eat lunch and just get up and walk away.”

Loitering in front of stores, and disagreements between groups of kids who had prior disdain for each other in middle school are also encompassed within this type of behavior. 

Montecito has always been a hub of kids that gather for a joint interest of getting food, socializing, and taking a short break off from school. The masses of bustling students will probably be there until the end of time, but the level of maturity among students has slipped.

The concept of behavioral change is not new in the course of this pandemic. Returning to in-person learning has led to students not knowing how to behave in social situations anymore. You can go to pretty much any news site and there will be multiple articles about how Covid has affected the children and how it has impacted them in school. From behavioral studies performed by Columbia Medical Center, to education reporting sites like Chalkbeat, evidence is there. A 2022 article published in NBCBoston discusses how these changes are shaping students from high school all the way through even the elementary school level. The article talks about how previously high achieving students are falling victim to worsening performance academically in school. The pandemic manifests itself in the form of not knowing how to or being able to, follow directions. 

A teacher here at San Rafael High shares the sentiment that students are not really knowing how to learn anymore, most notably the underclassmen who are experiencing high school for their first time in person.  

“There have been some things that have compounded the situation,” said Mr. McSorely, who teaches AP statistics and computer science. “One thing is screens; we see seniors as the first group who have always had screens. With Covid, that really accelerated the amount that people have been on screens. I’ve noticed a lot fewer students that are engaged, even with simple social cues like looking at someone when they talk. With the younger students especially, they are talking more during instruction, since they have been used to talking over an instructor online.”

Dr. Stephanie King, a psychologist in Novato, seemed to echo what McSorley said: that a lot of developmental milestones have been missed over Covid quarantine. When teens have prior mental health issues, the lack of social interactions can magnify these issues, making it more challenging to their natural development.

In terms of moving forward, in order to try and solve the multi-faceted issue of child behavior, Dr. King suggested that it would need to be a “group effort.” 

“Adults need to avoid falling into a pattern of dismissing what kids are saying,” she said. 

“There is chronic fatigue across the board. Teachers are exhausted, students are exhausted, parents are exhausted. People are in survival mode.”

Ben Johnson has seen some of these changes too. 

“Underclassmen are more deprived, they’ve been isolated,” he said. “Even the freshmen are acting like seventh-graders. They are bickering over little things that really don’t matter, they don’t understand how to communicate or conflict resolution. We had really smooth school years for eight, nine years. Lately, Covid interrupted that. Trying to glue everything together and put the rules back into place has been tough.” 

The pandemic is not the sole cause of behavioral changes in our students, although it may definitely be a factor that we’re trying to understand more in-depth. 

Student behavior in the classroom is multiplied when these same students who are struggling in the classroom are able to roam around an essentially teacher-free environment that is Montecito. 

Montecito has had a historically good relationship at least in recent years with the school and was even kind enough to let students use their back lot. This of course during the Christmas tree lot where the SR parking lot had around 40+ spots blocks off. 

Other businesses within Montecito, notably Bagel Street, Puentez, and Planet Juice, all serve a multitude of students during the lunchtime rush. Dealing with such a large number of students and customers can be especially difficult at times.

Cashiers at Trader Joe’s were not allowed to be interviewed, and it was difficult to get a hold of some other businesses. 

Puentez, a local Mexican spot that has held its spot for over two decades, has seen its fair share of students revolving in and out of their doors. 

Aldo Hernadez, now the owner, spoke about how he sees the students. “I look forward to you coming,” he said as a statement to students trolling for food in Montecito. “They’re much more well-behaved than they were in the past.”

He talked about how the scene was many different years ago, in the ‘90s, describing how SR students would be fighting out back, in the small area behind the shopping center. His attitude seemed to be welcoming to students, with the mentality of the more the merrier. The biggest “incident” he’d seen recently was a little scuffle in the fountain out front of the restaurant, nothing bearing resemblance to the fighting many years ago. 

Dealing with this type of behavior at Montecito is a difficult task, with administrators not being able to stand guard every day. Montecito has set up a security guard a few times a week, with the hopes of his presence being enough. Although not allowed to comment, the security appeared to have a multitude of stories to tell. 

Ben Johnson was able to offer some insight into what our administration has done to curb some of the behavior off-campus. There is a staggered day system in place, where different administrators head over to Montecito on different days in order to supervise students. Although it is dependent on students themselves to change and not become repeat offenders to these types of issues. Resolution will only come when students hold themselves accountable for their own actions, especially in the presence of other community members. 

Off-campus, and outside of school, we are still the face of SR and should show reverence and respect for others, just like how one would behave in front of family.  

With all that is going on in our SR community, it’s interesting to think about how the pandemic change may affect our classes for years to come. If there is a continued issue with behavior, what will happen when current eighth graders come to this school? Will there be even worse behavior, or will Covid have “worn off,” allowing students to act more as they have in the past?  

It is up to our rising seniors to be the new face of our school as they emerge from a full year of in-person learning, still feeling the effects of the pandemic. As current seniors bid farewell to the school, who knows how it will transform in the years to come. 


As this story was being written, Montecito entered the spotlight as tensions at school may have spilled over to the shopping center. According to a letter sent out by current SR interim principal Alex Peck, “there was a fight among students off-campus. In response, [the school] has closely collaborated with the San Rafael Police Department to investigate.” 

This incident resulted in police cars stationed by the front of campus parking lots, as well as at the back of the school. 

According to Ben Johnson, school security guard, it was an incident involving two groups that disagreed with each other, nothing gang-related, just simple disagreements. The two groups pushed each other around, which eventually ended in a multiple-person fight that spilled onto the sidewalk of Planet Juice.  

This incident was taken care of with both offending parties being suspended both from school and Montecito, with their future off-campus visits being withheld until further notice. 

This incident resulted in police cars stationed by the front of campus parking lots, as well as at the back of the school.

According to Ben Johnson, school security guard, it was an incident involving two groups that disagreed with each other, nothing gang-related, just simple disagreements. The two groups pushed each other around, which eventually ended in a multiple-person fight that spilled onto the sidewalk of Planet Juice.

This incident was taken care of with both offending parties being suspended both from school and Montecito, with their future off-campus visits being withheld until further notice.

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