Faced with surprise pushback from residents, the Mountain View Whisman School District will hit the brakes on its plans to surround all of its school fields with six-foot fences, vowing to solicit more feedback from the community.
But district officials affirmed at a school board meeting last week that the fences themselves are nonnegotiable and will move forward, regardless of what comes from these community meetings. The designs may be tweaked, but it's not up for debate whether they are built, school board members said.
"I think people need to be heard," said board member Devon Conley. "But with that in mind, this is about placement and design and how this is going to work, and not whether or not it will happen."
Since last year, the school district has planned to construct so-called perimeter controls around all of its schools, including six-foot chain-link fences around school facilities and adjacent field space. The goal was to improve campus safety and deter intruders, but the proposal has since exploded into a citywide controversy.
Residents across Mountain View, particularly those living around Monta Loma and Landels elementary schools, have blasted the district for the proposal. They argue it does little to improve campus safety while blocking off access to valuable fields that have been used as neighborhood parks for decades. Others felt it was a betrayal of trust, and were unaware funds from the district's $259 million Measure T bond would be used to build fences.
The community is willing to compromise on the plans, but it has an "allergic reaction" to the kind of walls the district has proposed, district parent Tushar Moorti said at the Nov. 5 meeting. Some areas need fencing, he said, but enclosing all schools with chain-link barriers is not the welcoming environment that the community wants.
"We do not want to hear 'Yes, we are going to build a wall to keep people out' and 'We are going to make you pay for it, through Measure T funding,'" Moorti said.
Since October, the district has faced repeated criticism at meetings for not doing enough public outreach and for failing to understand the importance of public access to school fields. In the Monta Loma area, the school field is the only available green space within walking distance, making the proposal a hard pill to swallow.
District officials have vowed to keep gates that open onto the field unlocked outside of school hours, but the assurance has done little to take the edge off the opposition.
Unlike past meetings, where the proposal was universally panned, several school officials came out in support of the fences at the school board meeting and urged trustees to move forward. Bubb Principal Cyndee Nguyen -- speaking on behalf of more than a dozen teachers and staff at the school -- said she has to remind at least half a dozen people every day that they cannot walk on campus during school hours. In one incident, she said one of her students was walking to the restroom and was approached by a man who was not supposed to be on campus, triggering a call to law enforcement.
"When parents drop off their children at school, myself included, we're expecting not only that our students will receive a high-quality education but they will also be physically safe," Nguyen said.
Board member Devon Conley, who is a teacher, said school staff should not be responsible for policing school grounds during the day and be forced to confront people to shoo them off campus during school hours. She recalled one incident in which she was screamed at by a man with a dog, which was off leash, in front of her young students.
"Every minute that someone is having to tell somebody to leave campus who should not be there is a minute spent not focusing on the social-emotional well-being of our children and not focused on instruction," Conley said.
To ease the tension and win over community support, the district will be hosting "work groups" composed of parents, school staff and community representatives to figure out a middle ground on the proposed fencing plan into December. These work groups will be limited to the Monta Loma and Landels communities, said Rebecca Westover, the district's chief business officer.
Board member Ellen Wheeler said the district was taking too narrow a focus, and that other neighborhoods have felt their concerns have been ignored. She said the Bubb Elementary School community wants to be involved in the district's plans, and deserves to have a work group even if district administrators feel it's unnecessary.
"To say this is something we don't have to do -- that's not the kind of thing that helps people move forward and feel good about the end solutions," Wheeler said. "It's true we don't need any feedback, we can just vote on this and go forward. Our community members would feel disenfranchised and angry."
Parent Karen Dillan said the reluctance to meet with Bubb residents is strange, and that the school district could use the feedback from residents in the area to make the project a better fit within the community.
"I really am puzzled by this pushback from Westover and everyone that you can't have a community meeting with us the way you can with Landels and Monta Loma," Dillan said. "It's truly bizarre."
Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph said he was reluctant to keep expanding the scope of community meetings and feedback, in part because of time constraints and huge plans to reopen schools during a global pandemic. He said there is also a part of the community that will never accept the district's plans and want fields to remain open even during school hours.
"We do have an obligation to make sure our kids are safe, and we do have an obligation that teachers shouldn't have to worry about this -- especially with COVID-19," Rudolph said. "People are very transparent that they still want to be able to walk through campus during school hours, and they knowingly walk across campus during school hours."
Board member Tamara Wilson, joining her colleagues, said the plans should move forward and that it's not an option to entirely nix the plan. She said it's the board's responsibility to keep students and school staff safe, and the overwhelming preference among school staff is to have perimeter fences installed.
Board member Laura Blakely said she was okay with delaying the plans to solicit more feedback, but that she herself has come around to the idea of perimeter controls, particularly in the aftermath of school shootings in Sandy Hook, Conn., and more recently in Parkland, Fla. The Parkland shooting sparked local concerns that more should be done to avoid a deadly shooting at Mountain View schools, including the installation of school fences.
Rudolph has called the fences a practical approach to student safety in the event of a school shooter, and said that perimeter controls are already common in schools throughout the region. Opponents have been skeptical, however, and say six-foot fences are easily scalable and could even create dangerous chokepoints.
One parent pointed out that school security has ballooned into a $2.7 billion industry with little research to back up the effectiveness of the safety measures.
Board member Jose Gutierrez said he was amenable to adding more community meetings, but said expanding the scope outside of Landels and Monta Loma feels like it's "after the fact" that the projects are moving forward. He said it also opens up the possibility that district administrators will be bombarded or harassed by people who dislike the proposed fences without gaining much in the way of value.
There is a lot of frustration and anger, Gutierrez said, but the district can't grind to a halt for everyone who feels they weren't counted.
"As long as it's respectful on both sides I wouldn't mind having another meeting, but this is it. We can't just open it up to everyone who doesn't agree with the district," Gutierrez said.
One additional community meeting will be held for the Bubb community, Rudolph said, some time before Nov. 19.