10 years after tragedy, Cuesta psych tech program offers mom a chance to ‘better my life’

Atascadero resident Jasmin Harris, 36, is currently enrolled in Cuesta College’s psychiatric technician program at Atascadero State Hospital. One of her twin 3-month-old babies died 10 years ago after he was shaken by his father.
Atascadero resident Jasmin Harris, 36, is currently enrolled in Cuesta College’s psychiatric technician program at Atascadero State Hospital. One of her twin 3-month-old babies died 10 years ago after he was shaken by his father.

Jasmin Harris has experienced a wide spectrum of emotions over the past year as she’s worked through Cuesta College’s psychiatric technician program at Atascadero State Hospital.

A 36-year-old single mother of two, Harris has sacrificed time with her children and overcome self-doubt and fear of an intimidating environment in pursuit of a career she hopes will be life-altering for a family that has already endured unimaginable loss.

Harris’ ambition to provide a better life for herself and her kids is rooted in an event that took place nearly 10 years ago.

Harris, who grew up in Los Osos and attended Morro Bay High School, was 26 years old when she gave birth to identical twin boys, Isaiah and Elijah, in 2009.

Atascadero State Hospital, where Troy Parker worked as a police lieutenant before retiring in 2017. Parker sued the Department of State Hospitals March 8 for allegedly denying him the ability to obtain a concealed weapons permit. David Middlecamp

Police were called to Harris’ home in Atascadero on March 16, 2009, after the boys’ father, Kelly Dewayne Lavinge, reportedly shook Isaiah too hard after the child had vomited up food.

Isaiah spent six weeks being treated for brain hemorrhaging and other injuries before he died at Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera County. He was 3 months old.

Lavinge was convicted of second-degree murder in 2011 and sentenced to 15 years to life in state prison.

“I can’t hold on to the anger of having to watch Isaiah slowly die in my arms after six long weeks of pain and suffering,” Harris said during Lavinge’s sentencing hearing in October 2011. “I may no longer be angry, but I will be forever changed.”

Harris admits today she fell into depression after the death of her son, but time, family support and the birth of another child have helped her move forward.

“If I can change my life, try to better my life the way I’m trying to right now, I would hope that other people can do it, too,” Harris said. “They shouldn’t doubt themselves or feel like they don’t have the ability to do it — because they can. It’s not easy, but, anybody can do it.”

Atascadero State Hospital. Joe Johnston

‘It’s totally worth it’

Psychiatric technicians at Atascadero State Hospital — an all-male, maximum security facility that houses mentally ill convicts — can make nearly $70,000 per year, according to spokesman Phillip Koziel. The starting salary is more than $59,000 a year.

Having worked as an office technician at California Men’s Colony and Atascadero State Hospital for nearly 15 years combined, Harris embraced the opportunity to enroll in Cuesta’s psychiatric technician program, considered to be one of the best in the state.

The program prepares students to provide nursing and therapeutic services for the mentally ill, emotionally disturbed or developmentally disabled.

According to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, graduates of Cuesta’s psychiatric technician program see an average of 245 percent increase in earnings; 86 percent of students attain the regional living wage once they complete the program; and 100 percent of student graduates are employed in a field related to their field of study.

“Where else can you go to school for one year and be able to make that type of money? I can’t really think of anything,” Harris said. “It’s totally worth it if you can sacrifice a personal life for a year. There isn’t one, really.”

Harris benefited from the state’s 20/20 program, which pays state employees to become psychiatric technicians. She works 20 hours and spends 20 hours on her education but gets full-time pay.

There are frequent 16-hour days between school and work, Harris said, but the on-the-job training will pay off when she graduates from the program Sept. 21.

Atascadero State Hospital.

‘A better quality of life’

Harris currently works in an admissions unit at Atascadero State Hospital, where men come in from jail or court and are not always medicated.

Harris remembers feeling scared and uncomfortable during an incident with a new patient behaving erratically toward her.

“He would scream and yell at me, and one day he charged me down the hallway, and I ran into the office and I thought, ‘OK, I can’t do this,’” Harris said. “You can’t be scared like that and you can’t show them that they’ve intimidated you — and he did that with me — and I thought, ‘This isn’t going to work.’”

A few weeks later, Harris started to see a change in the man. The psychiatric medication was working.

“One day, he came up to me and he goes, ‘I just want to apologize for what I did,’” Harris said. “‘I just was so out of my mind and so stressed out.’ He remembered. I thought, ‘Whoa.’”

Harris is more comfortable in that environment today — although not comfortable enough to let her guard down — having spent the past year in training.

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Lindsay Byers serves as the psychiatric technician program director at Atascadero State Hospital. David Middlecamp

The first term of the psychiatric technician program focuses on nursing science, the second on psychiatric nursing and the third on developmental disabilities, according to program director Lindsay Byers.

Students typically spend two days per week in the classroom and three days working in one of the nearly 50 clinical facilities and agencies throughout San Luis Obispo County that Cuesta partners with.

Classes are taught by registered nurses with different clinical backgrounds, many who have worked at Atascadero State Hospital.

“They’re very passionate about the students and what this program can do for people, for the quality of life,” Byers said. “It does offer a better quality of life for people and they can provide food, but also provide vacations and also provide medical (benefits) and all of the things this career can give to students.”

Once students complete the program, they must pass an intensive licensing exam through the Board of Vocational Nursing and Psychiatric Technicians.

Byers said graduates who pass the state board exam and prove themselves during the interview process have “a very good chance” of getting hired on at Atascadero State Hospital.

‘Our job is treatment, not punishment’

In some ways, Harris is carrying on a family tradition with her chosen career path.

Her mother worked as a correctional officer at California Men’s Colony. Her grandfather was a psychiatric technician, and her grandmother worked as a nurse at Atascadero State Hospital.

Harris said she enjoys working with the population at Atascadero State Hospital, and she understands what patients are really like, especially those coming from the prison system.

“They’re not all nice people. But that doesn’t matter with what we do,” Harris said. “Our job is treatment, not punishment. They’ve already been punished; we’re just there to help them with their sanity, I guess you could say.”

The psychiatric technician program begins three times annually, once in January, May and September.

Applicants must be at least 18 years old and have completed high school or a GED equivalent to be considered.

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