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.
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.
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.
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.