Rancor Over Alameda School Fences

Not everyone likes the notion of 6-foot chain-link fences erected at Alameda schools, though some parents think the district has taken too long on the security measure.


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6-foot chain-link fences have cause discord in Alameda.

Illustration by Minwoo Park, photo by Eve Pearlman

In November 2014, Alameda voters approved Measure I, a $179.5 million school bond that included $3 million for 6-foot-high perimeter fencing at Alameda schools.

Plans for the fencing, as well as other security measures such as signage, new locks, surveillance cameras, and fire alarm upgrades, came out of community meetings during which the Alameda Unified School District developed a facilities master plan. Nick Stephenson of Quattrocchi Kwok Architects, the project’s master architect, compiled these top keywords from those meetings: Fencing, security, problem, gates.

So the district’s safety and security committee ultimately recommended that each school establish a secure perimeter by erecting a 6-foot tall fence and keep all gates, except a main entrance, locked during school hours but open during drop-off, pick-up, and after school. The fences will be chain-link galvanized steel or vinyl-coated black chain-link, but main school entrances will be more decorative.

The first fences are going up this summer, with Edison Elementary School and Lincoln Middle School first in line. But with the fence-building imminent, residents are revisiting the idea. Some are vocally pro-fence and pro-locked gates, while others would like the campuses to be more open.

As the impending construction has renewed community interest on the fences in particular and school security in general, district officials are scheduling community meetings at each school as the fences are designed for that school. The meetings will continue through the spring and resume in the fall. The district-wide fence installation should take 18 to 24 months, though some issues—such as when a fence crosses over a walkway, for instance—need state approval and may take longer.

“There is a diversity across the Island in terms of how people at various school sites feel, and within each site there are also a diversity of issues,” said Shariq Khan, chief business officer for the district. “Not everyone has yet gotten a chance to share their point of view, and that is why we are going back to each school site to meet with teachers, parents, neighbors.”

For Mohan Vemulapalli, the parent of a fourth-grader at Edison, getting safety upgrades has taken too long. A member of the school’s safety committee for many years, he worries about classroom doors that open to the street without fences, a lack of signage directing visitors to the main office, and existing low fencing on portions of the schoolyard.

“The fence isn’t safe because it doesn’t keep people out, and it doesn’t keep kids in,” he said. “Forty percent of the perimeter is covered by a fence that is 3-feet tall or less. I can stand with one foot on either side of it.”

Other parents wonder what hazards students are being protected from.

“I’ve spoken to many families who think that the fences are ‘security theater’ that don’t offer real protection and are a waste of money,” said Aidan Ryan, who has two daughters at Donald D. Lum Elementary School. “I would prefer to keep schools as open as possible, unless there are specific things actually happening that we’re trying to stop, then I’d rather not have fencing.”

Police Chief Paul Rolleri noted that incidents at schools can put people on edge. In February 2015, a man came into the Edison office via the front school entrance and was aggressive toward the staff, a situation quickly resolved by the staff and police. In August 2013, a young teen—who was properly authorized to be on campus—was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault after school hours at Ruby Bridges Elementary School.

“Generally, the schools are safe in Alameda,” Rolleri said. “But, of course, there can always be a problem, and no chief of police could guarantee that there won’t be an incident at a school. But, percentage-wise, for the number schools and kids and the size of our town, the number of calls that involve safety in the schools are small.”

Rolleri, his staff, fire department representatives, and the city staff are coordinating with district officials to ensure that the fences and other security measures fit with well-established plans for school safety.

Mat Hoffman, the father of an Edison third-grader, has worked in security for the Marine Corps and in the private sector for nearly three decades. He said he understands that fences can give the feeling of security but added, “If someone wants to do harm, they are going to do it, and a fence isn’t going to stop them.”

“Realistically, our biggest threat here in the Bay Area is an earthquake or a fire, and if you put up 6-foot fences that a second-grader can’t climb, then they can’t get out,” Hoffman said. “I am personally more worried about my child being able to get away from something bad than someone bad getting in.”

Ryan, whose daughters are at Lum, said he has gotten involved with the design planning for the school. “I just want to make sure that the design plans are communicated as early as possible and in as much detail as possible so as many community members as possible can give their feedback,” Ryan said.

More information about the district plans and upcoming meetings can be found on the AUSD website, www.Alameda.k12.ca.us.

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