Schools leaders offer assurances in wake of school sex assault
Schools leaders offer assurances in wake of school sex assault
School district officials and police sought to calm jittery parents Tuesday in the wake of a reported sexual assault of a student Friday on the Ruby Bridges Elementary School campus.
Superintendent Kirsten Vital told Ruby Bridges parents who attended their school’s Parent Teacher Association meeting Tuesday evening – a meeting that was supposed to focus on the PTA’s back to school needs – that the district had hammered out a deal with the city’s parks department to fence off the blacktop that sits behind the school, which the school and the park department share.
The school will also begin closing and locking the gates that surround it; in practice, parents and others said the gates are routinely left open. Taken all together, the moves will close the campus to outsiders.
Police, meanwhile, noted that they responded within minutes of receiving a call from an after-school program staffer about the possible sexual assault of a student in the program, who had been told about the incident by another student. Police caught the 14-year-old suspect six minutes after they arrived, they said, and are continuing to investigate the case.
“The safety system that was in place that day worked,” Lt. Jill Ottaviano said. “And it worked because Ruby Bridges staff has made sure the children, and the parents, and the staff, knew what to do in case of an emergency.”
In a letter sent to PTAs district wide Tuesday to be shared with parents, Vital sought to reassure parents that Alameda’s schools are safe – and reminded them to follow safety procedures that include signing in at their school office and wearing visitor stickers that serve as an immediate visual cue that someone belongs on campus.
“(F)ocus on learning the safety rules at your schools, reviewing them with your children, and reassuring them of their safety,” Vital wrote.
Vital told a reporter on Tuesday that the district has “clear policies and protocols in place” to keep students safe. But she acknowledged that they aren’t always followed.
In her letter, Vital urged parents to always sign in at the school office; remind children to go to the bathroom in pairs or trios and also, never to go anywhere with a stranger; and to shout for help and run away if they feel threatened.
Vital said the district will have to look site-by-site to determine whether additional safety features are needed at the rest of the district’s schools; in her letter to parents, she said the district has worked with local police and fire departments to conduct safety assessments of its schools. (A district spokesperson said 80 percent of the assessments, which look at items including procedures and emergency plans, "red dot" locations and alarm systems are complete and the rest are due this fall.) But she said many safety issues would need to be addressed in a schools bond now under discussion.
The district spent $6.5 million on paint, roofing and other maintenance projects at its schools this summer, staffers reported to the school board on August 27; none of the money appears to have been spent on security upgrades.
At the school’s PTA meeting, the dozens of parents who attended offered a range of other suggestions for security upgrades that included bringing more volunteers on campus or hiring security guards to supervise children, improving lighting on campus, holding safety assemblies, installing cameras and alarms and teaching children self defense.
In January, the Alamedan visited a trio of local schools – including Ruby Bridges – to test school security. None of the adults a reporter encountered at the three schools questioned the presence of the reporter, who was not wearing a visitor sticker. The reporter entered an open gate at Ruby Bridges that bore a sign saying it should be closed at all times “for children’s safety.”
Parents also acknowledged that they don’t always follow the rules; in an interview, one parent said she never wears a visitor badge while on campus. But some parents raised questions about schools officials' handling of the incident, saying they learned about it on the news – or, in graphic detail, from their children – instead of hearing from school leaders, which has fueled rumors about what happened just as police are seeking to prevent the victim from being identified and shield her and her family from a public airing of the details of the attack.
Monique Alexander said a neighbor told her about the assault after hearing about it on the television news, while Debra Mendoza said she learned about it from her children.
“There was no real-time communication with the families,” said Mendoza, who said her first communication from the school that anything had happened was a robocall that came in around 7 p.m., three hours after the attack.
Both parents also questioned the school’s characterization of the incident. The call and a letter from the school’s principal and vice principal that parents received Tuesday told parents only that a student had been assaulted (police confirmed Tuesday that a sexual assault had occurred).
“Be real,” Alexander said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Tell us the truth.”
Mendoza also criticized the schools leaders’ decision to hold an ad hoc meeting to discuss the incident Tuesday morning, which included school leaders, Vital and other district office officials, and police. Ruby Bridges Principal Jan Goodman, who informed parents about the meeting by “word of mouth,” said Tuesday that she was surprised when 150 people showed up.
“The school was completely unprepared,” said Mendoza, who, like others who attended, characterized it as a frustrating, emotional meeting during which parents got few of the answers they sought.
Both parents and the aftercare supervisor who called police and chased the suspect as he fled said this is not the first time they’ve asked schools officials to fence off the rear of the campus. Built in 2006, Ruby Bridges contains some design elements meant to deter would-be attackers, including a main office with separate access from the rest of the school. But the school backs up to an open blacktop and field that are shared by the school and the local parks department.
Robbie Wilson, who supervises the LEAPS program at Ruby Bridges, said that most of the non-students who play basketball there while her program is in session are respectful. But she has tussled with others who swear and smoke while young children are nearby, and has sometimes called police, she said.
“I am tired of being cussed at,” said Wilson, as parents stopped to give her hugs and thank her for the care she provides. She thinks the fence will act as a deterrent.
Alexander said she went to the district office to ask for a fence but was told the district lacked the money to pay for one.
Wilson said the after-school program will add rotations where entire classes are taken for bathroom breaks; its policy is for students to go to the bathrooms in pairs or trios, she said. She said older children who come to pick up their siblings have in the past brought friends and hung out; now they will be required to sign their siblings out, and leave.
Last week was the first week of school, time Wilson and her staff spent teaching students about safety. Tuesday’s sessions were all about making them feel safe, she said.
“The frustrating thing is, you can have everything Ps and Qs and – (sigh),” she said.