Residents are up in arms over a decision by the Mountain View Whisman School District to install fences around all of its campuses, criticizing a plan that they believe will block access to open space while doing little to improve campus safety.
The plans have been in the works since last year, and propose installing 6-foot chain-link fences that encircle both classroom facilities and adjacent park space at schools across the city. District officials say the fences are necessary and borne out of a need for better school security -- campuses with porous borders are difficult to monitor and impractical in era of school shootings.
The idea of school fences came up in the wake of a 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., when the district held a town hall meeting on proactive safety measures to prevent or deter a school shooting in Mountain View. A district-run survey later found that parents and students supported fences at schools, which was later baked into the district's Measure T bond that passed in March.
The coronavirus pandemic and the need for strict visitor protocols has since accelerated the timeline to build the fences, said Rebecca Westover, the district's chief business officer, though she did not provide a firm date for when construction will begin. An early draft of the Measure T spending plan shows that fences and other perimeter controls are expected to cost just shy of $7.4 million, which includes the cost of gates, access controls and some higher-cost ornamental fences made out of iron.
Though the plan for fences quietly won the board's approval, and Measure T passed with a comfortable margin at the ballot box, it has since boiled over as a citywide controversy. Residents from several neighborhoods -- particularly those near Monta Loma and Landels elementary schools -- have come out in strong opposition to the plan, arguing it is tantamount to taking away what little park space they have. While the public will still have access to the fields outside of school hours and on the weekends, critics say chain-link fences will still create an unwelcoming environment while doing little to actually protect students.
Monta Loma resident and parent Jill Rakestraw said people in her neighborhood are "extremely upset" about the proposal, which would place fencing along most of the perimeter of the school -- leaving only small sliver of space for a pedestrian walkway. An alternative uses less fencing, but cuts off even more of the campus.
During a Zoom forum last month between Monta Loma residents and district officials, Rakestraw said it was clear that people did not want the district to move forward with the plans.
"The anger and sadness from the community speakers was palpable," she said. "They really don't want to lose their neighborhood park."
Part of the issue is that a significant portion of the city's fields and open space is owned by the school district, despite being widely considered to be public parks. Excluding the North Bayshore area, an estimated 44% of the city's open space is owned by Mountain View Whisman, all of which is technically off-limits during school hours from 7:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said on-campus intrusions have been a recurring problem for years, and that school principals have consistently raised concerns about safety and security. Residents, knowingly or unknowingly, are constantly ignoring the rules and entering campus during the day, sometimes to walk their dog or use the restroom. He said he has personally seen people using the track at Crittenden Middle School in the morning, that and it leads to uncomfortable situations where teachers and students have to chase them off.
"I don't think we should be placing any teacher in the position of asking a community member to move off the field," Rudolph said.
And while residents largely see Mountain View as a safe community, Rudolph said the district must take seriously the threat of a school shooting. Potentially because of the "time warp" that is COVID-19, he said residents are quick to forget the shootings at the Gilroy Garlic Festival and the Six Flags in Concord -- both of which occurred just last year in the Bay Area.
"Maybe the community is right that nothing is going to happen, but we all would agree that if it does happen it's going to be a catastrophe," Rudolph said. "Us putting up perimeter fencing is an insurance policy to help buy time for our students to find a place to be safe."
Residents upset by the plans for fences got a chance to speak their mind at the city's Parks and Recreation Commission meeting last week, many of whom said they felt blindsided by the decision. Many said they had no idea that voting for Measure T would lead to their local park being barricaded by chain-link fences, and believed that the district-run outreach to date -- surveys and information meetings over Zoom -- were tailored for district parents rather than the public at large.
Resident Paul Donahue, who lives near Bubb Elementary, said he wasn't confident that the gates will be unlocked outside of school hours, and that worried the fences would be unsightly and give off the impression that the public no longer has access. He also argued that the district's justification for the fences relies too heavily on anecdotal problems -- complaints of school-site intrusions and dog bites -- rather than something more concrete.
"I think that they're using public funds based on anecdotal data that isn't really backed up by meaningful, real data," Donahue said.
Monta Loma resident Tiffany Dale said she doesn't think a fence would have stopped the Parkland shooting, but that encircling schools with chain-link barrier would certainly change the feel of the community. Kids live in a lot of fear already, she said, and there's no reason to add to that by putting them behind fences. Andre Valente, also from Monta Loma, called the justifications for perimeter fencing "absolutely flimsy" and that it would destroy the character of the neighborhood.
Though the Parks and Recreation Commission has no oversight of the district's plans, commission members nevertheless urged the school district to find common ground with the community, revise its plans and work on its communication with the greater public -- not just school parents. Commissioner Joe Mitchner, previously a trustee with the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, said he had not been aware of the proposal until that evening.
"I'm pretty in the loop on school issues, I've served on a school board and I also live within a third of a mile to two Mountain View Whisman schools. This is the first time that I've seen these design plans," he said.
Commissioner and former councilwoman Ronit Bryant, who lives near Landels, said she believes the temporary security problems caused by COVID-19 are being conflated with the longer-term threat of an active shooter, both of which should be handled separately. While Bryant said she does not want to "live in fear all the time," she said she would much prefer shorter, four-foot fences with a decorative design.
"A 6-foot chain link looks like a prison. It doesn't say 'safety' to me, it says 'prison' -- you communities stay out, you children stay in," Bryant said. "It's not a look I would like for my community."
Bryant also criticized the district's approach to date, and said residents should have been involved early on in the planning and design of perimeter security. Instead, she believes the plan was mostly decided ahead of time, and is now being justified to the community after the fact.
"To say we're all in this together, but we get to make the decision and you guys will have to eat it, is an unattractive look," she said.
In the lead-up to the Parks and Recreation meeting, Monta Loma resident Jim Zaorski said he believes a compromise can still be reached between residents and the district, but that he has been disheartened by the lack of engagement and "seeming lack of desire" to work with the neighboring communities. Each school site is different and requires a unique approach to campus security, he said, yet the district has picked a one-size-fits-all approach that threatens to broadly cut off public access to parks.
When district officials met with Monta Loma residents, Zaorski said it felt as though the district was willing to make small accommodations -- such as new fence styles and colors -- but wouldn't consider the larger question of whether the fences were needed at all.
"I think that this is a position that will inevitably result in the isolation of the district, both by physically separating its sites from the neighborhoods, and by politically driving a wedge between it and the community," Zaorski said.
Rudolph said it's an unusual situation to have so much of the city's open space tied up in school district property, underscored by the fact that Mountain View has grown significantly over the years without adding much in the way of new green space. While the district has been open to blurring the lines between city parks and school campuses, he said the fences simply enforce rules that have already been on the books for years.
Because residents see schools as a recreational asset, Rudolph said there is double standard in which tech employees in Mountain View are protected by security personnel and key cards required to get around, and even City Hall is mostly cordoned off from public access, yet teachers and students are expected to spend the day in a free-access environment.
"You can't walk onto a university anymore and walk in and out of the classrooms without a swipe card," Rudolph said. "We expect a modicum of safety for all of these other employees, but we are completely disregarding the concerns of our teachers, our principals, our students and our parents."
"Unfortunately the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s -- anything that was pre-Columbine -- has changed. That is just not the case anymore," Rudolph said.
Though initial plans by the district show 8-foot fences on some school sites, Rudolph said they have since reduced heights to 6 feet unless there is already an 8-foot fence in place. School board members are expected to review the plan on Nov. 5 and, absent any major revisions, will vote to approve it on Nov. 19. The City Council is also expected to hear a presentation on the school fences at its Oct. 27 meeting.