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School campuses off limits after hours

By Katie Helland, The Gilroy Dispatch, Calif.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Feb. 06--For the last decade, the Gilroy Unified School District has been installing fences to keep children safe from intruders -- a project that was ramped up after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in December 2013. But the fact GUSD is keeping many of its playgrounds closed after hours has recently caught the attention of City Council. Members are worried that local children are losing public spaces where they can play and be active.

During a joint meeting Jan. 22 between City Council and GUSD, Council members voiced concerns that closing up school sites with fenced-in perimeters -- which includes 12 of 15 GUSD campuses -- will negatively impact children who don't live near a public park. Currently, five out of eight elementary and two out of three middle schools are closed to the public after school.

"The schools have always served as a supplement to our park system," explained Mayor Pro Tempore Perry Woodward, who recalled being able to play on campus after school when he was growing up in Gilroy.

District staff, however, maintained keeping schools open to the public after hours is not worth the clean-up costs incurred from vandals and loiterers who frequently target school campuses as their next blank canvas for tagging and drug use.

"All I can say is, it's really tough to come to school Monday morning and see needles, condoms, people who couldn't find a bathroom and just peed," said School Board trustee Pat Midtgaard.

The three elementary schools that remain open are Las Animas, where parents and the surrounding neighborhood asked for the campus to remain open; Rucker, where portions of the campus stay open; and Luigi. At Luigi, construction for fencing that will completely enclose the perimeter of the campus will begin sometime in the next two months. The plan is to design the fence so that six of the school's dozen basketball courts remain open to the public after school hours every day.

Some of the five elementary campuses get locked up after school because the community requested it in the first place, following frequent incidents of vandalism, according to district staff.

GUSD Superintendent Debbie Flores reiterated that decisions were made on a "site by site" basis. Parents at some elementary schools, including El Roble and Glenview, asked the district to close the campuses at the end of the school day so the sites could be protected from graffiti and vandalism, she said.

"It's a balance between having playgrounds open after school and keeping sites free of vandalism," she said, summing up the situation.

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Of the five elementary school campuses that are closed after hours, two -- El Roble and Rod Kelley -- have a public park in close proximity. When the fence at Luigi is completed, it will join this group of campuses, as the school is adjacent to Del Rey Park.

Eventually, GUSD plans to erect fences around 14 of its 15 campuses, leaving only the Dr. TJ Owens Gilroy Early College Academy (GECA) open, as the school is part of Gavilan College's open campus.

"A lot of the fencing we've done has been the result of direct consul with the Gilroy Police Department," Flores explained. "And a lot of it has to do with the school shooting...the Sandy Hook shooting was a shock to all of us."

GUSD accelerated its plan to build fences around every campus following the Dec. 14 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, when a lone gunman walked onto campus and killed 20 children and six staff.

Four days after the Newton Conn. disaster, Flores met with principals, district staff and the Gilroy Police Department to review the district's Code Red (lockdown) procedures, discuss safety protocol upgrades and identify the immediate next steps required to heighten security at school sites. The findings of meetings with law enforcement were clear: enclose the campuses and keep only one entrance to the schools open during the school day.

Recent fencing projects have been funded mostly by about $750,000 from Measure P, the $150 million general obligation facilities bond voters passed in 2008, Flores explained.

Construction to make existing fencing at Luigi run the full perimeter of the campus is scheduled to start this spring. Fencing at Mt. Madonna Continuation High School could follow as early as this summer, and fencing at Ascension Solorsano Middle School will follow when grant funding or the next round of Measure P funding becomes available, Flores explained.

Some of Luigi's playground property belongs to the adjacent Del Rey Park, meaning students will lose some of their play area once the rest of the fence is installed. Parents at the school are already brainstorming ways to fundraise the implementation of new play structures for Luigi that can be placed inside the school's fenced-in perimeter.

Flores noted that construction of the fence should start in the next few months, and that playground equipment may be added later if parents fundraise enough money to purchase it. The fence is being designed so that the public can access six of the 12 basketball courts that belong to the school campus even after the school day ends.

At Gilroy and Christopher High schools, the fences enclose the main buildings and close off only pools, tennis courts and the GHS track and field on weekends. Fields and buildings that are normally not available to the public for walk-on use can also be reserved if organizations contact the district, show they have insurance and pay a use fee, Flores added.

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Woodward acknowledged that society has changed in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, but also remembers the days when Glenview wasn't fenced in and he could walk to the school to play. He urged the district to be "judicious" in balancing recreation and safety at the school sites.

"Of course during the school day you need to secure the school, but after hours it's unfortunate that the kids can't play there. We have an obesity epidemic in our community," Woodward said. "A lot of people live with very small yards on busy streets and if the kids can go down to the school yard and play, that's a very positive thing."

Board of Education trustee Jaime Rosso empathized with Woodward's concerns. Rosso acknowledged that while fences protect students during the school day, the same students often play in the streets surrounding the campus when the school day ends.

"I go down certain neighborhoods and I see kids playing in the streets between cars and I think 'God there's a school over there,'" he said.

In 2012, 35 percent of adults in Gilroy met the recommendations for moderate or vigorous exercise each day, compared to 55 percent of the adults in Santa Clara County, according to the Gilroy City Profile of 2012.

Santa Clara was one of three counties in California, including Sacramento and Monterey, to pilot the nationwide "Let's Move Salad Bars to Schools," which is working to get more -- and better -- salad bars into schools.

Gilroy's high rates of poverty and childhood obesity caused the city to be selected as the County's kick-off city to pilot the initiative.

Woodward urged the district to be "judicious" in approaching a topic that balances security and recreation elements, but ceded the issue is "really a school district question."

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(c)2014 The Gilroy Dispatch, Calif.

Visit The Gilroy Dispatch, Calif. at www.gilroydispatch.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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