No urgency before emergency

on November 11, 2009

There’s a white wall at the east end of Emeric Avenue, a street that flows directly into the Richmond High School courtyard where a 16-year-old was raped on Oct. 24.

Two weeks ago, red graffiti on that wall marking it the territory of the Norteño gang was crossed off in blue graffiti to label it that of Crips. Now, after that paint was whitewashed, black graffiti labels the block Sureño territory.

It’s one of many pieces of evidence that criminal activity swirls around the high school day and night.

Richmond High administrators, students and parents have spent years asking for a complete security camera system and fence to deter on-campus visits from gangs, vandals and the kind of intruders that raped, robbed and brutalized a girl into critical condition.

But, without the eyes of news media fixed on them, district board members have displayed no urgency to protect Richmond’s largest school with fences and cameras.

Media scrutiny

camera

Jose Deleon, Richmond High's assistant principal, points out a broken camera to a CBS 5 reporter less than a year before a teen was raped in the courtyard beneath it.

Until CBS 5 investigated the lack of security at Richmond High almost a year ago, the district had no concrete plans to put up fences and operational cameras at the school.

More than $400 million in capital improvement funds received from Measure J, which voters approved in November 2005, had been budgeted for projects such as a $5 million renovation of Richmond High’s football field and bleachers. The budget that went forward contained not one penny for fences or security cameras.

But then the news station’s investigation revealed that seven of the school’s 16 analog cameras worked. News producers proved they could wander the campus undetected. And Bruce Harter, district superintendent, was video-taped avoiding questions about the school’s security by running away from the reporter and locking himself in a school gym.

Within a month of the investigation’s airing, the district board ratified designing contracts for both new fencing and a security camera system at Richmond High.

Newly-elected board member Antonio Medrano said publicly in January that both projects would be finished by summer.

The projects were not finished when promised, however, as Richmond residents discovered following the Oct. 24 assault.

As satellite dishes from CNN, NBC, CBS, Univision and other media camped outside Richmond High to report about the rape, the school district officials asked Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) to get mandatory fencing plan reviews expedited through the office of the Division of the State Architect (DSA). Their request was granted and, instead of waiting as long as 12 weeks for their first review, it was finished on Friday.

But El Sobrante resident Robert Brower, who attends district facilities subcommittee and board meetings religiously, said the district always had the option to expedite plans for fences and cameras. They chose not to, he said.

“If it’s a life safety issue, (the DSA) will just move it ahead of everybody else if asked to,” Brower said. “But they never asked.”

Bill Fay, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations, said asking a politician or lobbyist to speed up approvals at a State office is common practice when the situation warrants it.

“All it takes is a little call,” Fay said.

A contractor bid to install the security camera system was already set to be completed this week. But because camera installation is not something that has to be approved by the DSA, the bids could have gone out at any time earlier this year.

Delays

The dates for fence and security camera installation now are still roughly the same as they were before Oct. 24. Cameras are scheduled to be installed from December to April and fences will be installed from February to August next year.

Part of the reason fences and security cameras did not go up by last summer was because board facilities subcommittee members Medrano and Charles Ramsey did not allocate installation funds from Measure J until May.

“Nobody knew an incident like this would happen, so there was no sense of urgency,” Ramsey said. “Things like this can happen anywhere in the USA. It just so happened to be here this time.”

“You can put an 8-foot fence there, they’d still hop over it,” Ramsey said, adding that he knows taller fences would at least be more of a deterrent in the future.

Ramsey said moving part of the fencing installation to the summer of 2010 was more accommodating for the school because a faculty parking lot will also be redone then.

After funding was specified in May, two more delays held the camera project back. First, further discussion of Richmond High security plans was postponed after a July facilities subcommittee meeting was cut short.

Then, in August, the facilities subcommittee discussed increasing the entire scope of the security camera system project into something that could become the standard for other schools in the district.

Original plans for the camera system expanded into one with a data network that incorporates cable TV, internal TV systems, surveillance systems, clocks, and other features on a digital dashboard. Police could then tap into the dashboard via a laptop and view a zone triggering an alarm.

At this point, installation of both the fences and the cameras is scheduled to begin as soon as possible.

Ramsey said he hopes the additional planning and investment put into the security camera system, though it could not be there for a teen raped on campus in October, protects Richmond High students and staff much longer and more effectively than the either dead or ineffective cameras they have now.

2 Comments

  1. Don Gosney on November 11, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    Fences at Richmond High would go a long way towards securing the campus but security cameras may only provide an expensive feeling of false hope.

    Too many people have been misled by watching the CSI type of TV programs where they’ll pull a video feed from an ATM machine and read the date on a newspaper across the street. The truth is that unless you spend megabucks on top of the line cameras, the images you’re going to get are not going to yield the results you hope for.

    As a photographer using some very sophisticated equipment I can tell you that when you try to take video of people in a dark alley wearing dark clothing you’re going to get noting of any use.

    And video surveillance is useless unless you have someone watching the monitors real time. Otherwise the footage is only of value in maybe catching a perpetrator and prosecuting them AFTER they’ve committed the crime.

    We heard the same demands for security cameras when someone stole a minivan, rammed it through the gates and set it on fire on the 50 yard line of the brand new football field. Does our community really want us to spend tens of thousands of dollars to put the football field under video surveillance?

    Just like in our own homes and in most businesses, the WCCUSD doesn’t have the money to pay people to sit in front of the monitors all of the time. How many teachers do you think would have to be terminated to free up the money for the monitor watchers?

    Perhaps we should invest in better training and counseling of our youth so they can understand that rape and violence are unacceptable. Perhaps we need to mobilize the parents of our students so they’re willing to chaperone these functions.. Maybe we need to praise the kind of people like Margarita Vargas who immediately called the police instead of rallying behind those who stood by and cheered on this heinous act.

    There are plenty of areas where we can make improvements in all of our schools to make our students safer but we need to stop pointing fingers and assessing blame and get to work on actually fixing the problem with solutions that have a chance of actually working.



  2. Alexa on November 11, 2009 at 9:42 pm

    It’s true: Blame can be pointed in several directions after this incident. There are several ways it could have been prevented.

    This article focuses on one topic I’ve heard many parents and students concerned about.

    I’d like to clear two things up, though:

    -the district knows new cameras won’t work without proper lighting. They’ve told me they will install lights compatible with the new cameras if the new ones they just put up are not.
    -as much as some would like to, Measure J funds cannot be used to pay teachers’ salaries. The money is specifically for capital improvements.

    If you’d like to read more about renewed efforts to counsel youth, another RC reporter wrote an excellent article about that here:

    http://richmondconfidential.org/2009/11/05/knowledge-not-emotion-stops-rape/



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Richmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for, and about, the people of Richmond, California. Our goal is to produce professional and engaging journalism that is useful for the citizens of the city.

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