Schools leaders offer assurances in wake of school sex assault

Schools leaders offer assurances in wake of school sex assault

Michele Ellson

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.

Related: Connecticut shootings restart school safety discussion

Comments

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, Sep 4, 2013

How many police patrol cars are routinely assigned to the West End compared to Park Street and the East End? I live in the area and police patrols are few and far between.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, Sep 5, 2013

This school district has consistently ignored security concerns. Check out the complete lack of security cameras at Alameda High School, a place with numerous "nooks and crannies". It's unconscionable and another reflection of the AUSD's leadership vacuum.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, Sep 5, 2013

I can tell you that the only police presence I see in that area are when they try to set up speed traps on Willie Stargell.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Thu, Sep 5, 2013

Hey folks - as I'm seeing the anonymous comments begin to stack up, I just wanted to jump in to ask if you could please put a name - even just a first name - on your comments. Thanks for your cooperation on that.

Submitted by Ron (not verified) on Thu, Sep 5, 2013

Alamedans want their school to have cameras higher gates and more security guards and greater police presence, but those same Alamedans don't want to be asked to pay for it. As somebody who has worked in schools with and without cameras, I can tell you it's little more than a money-maker for the company that installs and repairs the things... give a kid a football and your fancy camera is disabled.

Submitted by Audrey canycorn (not verified) on Fri, Sep 6, 2013

"Greetings im Adrey CandyCorn i am a parent of the Ruby Bridges School community and im not good at writting and am a little shy how ever due to an resent Tragity at our school i was compelled to reach out First i'd like to say Thank You Machele for your support along with Tracey Spencer. Well I atended Tuesdays Emotional morning meeting along with 74 other parents. The focus point was (Preventing UnWelcomed INTRUDERS Harming Our Children On School Primicey so the mane objective is to keep the KIDS SAFE .How do we do this? Some said put up an Gate the answer was There's NO MONEY for it & It Will Take SIX MONTHS Down The Line With so many So Called OBSTACLES in the way The parents begain to speak out and ask for walky talkys, vidio cameras, security gaurds volunteering and my favorit (Wich came from an man) sorry i 4got His name stood up in the meeting as he balled his paper up and threw it in the trash and Stated.This meeting is turning POLITICAL We Needed To Put Forth an MESSAGING TEXT SYSTEM TO REACH THE PARENT QUICKLY for EMERGENCY PURPOSES Etc. How Ever It Seems To Me out of the 75 parents that Attended that Meeting :-) IF Each Parent Donate 1hr of there time thats 75 hours to.start with next count all bath rooms /corners Posts parent there accordingly .Stop signs MOST IMPORTANTLY the Corners of the feild.This i feel will secure the Primices of the opposite side of the school that is Unsecured Im HOPEING every One ISN'T LOOSING SIGHT This Happened During the AFTER SCHOOL PROGRAM.So our Focuse Must Remain On the Hours OF OPERATION After 2:45 untill 6:15 ruffly 3hrs.This again will insure safty Rotating parents Weekly allowing them to choose their Desired time slots/spots Until the hours of that week is filled up from fri. To fri this way COME MONDAY MORNING parents will be on there desired post and staff would clearly keep the sheets in the.office a new one set out weekly allowing Parents to Rotate their ONE hr shift while we wait on an gate in the meanwhile this method is FREE just a little organization and parent participation and this plan can go in to action however we must REMEMBER We Are NOT campus supervisors more like SILENT OBSERVERS with one mission to Execute our plane To Keep Our Campus Safe and i Audrey candycorn am couragious enough to volunteer my.hour As Of TOMOROW This Tragity happened on friday we had meeting Tuesday wensday i poundered come friday i will be sharing my strategy with principal Goodman soon as i drop my son off to school in hopes that perhapes this may be an possible Solution my intent is to show my support to the Victim 1st my son 2nd the ruby bridges community ,the after school program and ms Goodman Last but not least wow! My 1st blogg EVER in my life. Peace

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Fri, Sep 6, 2013

Audrey,

Thanks for weighing in with that additional information.

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