Speakers at last week’s Mountain View City Council meeting gave a collective thumbs-down to a Mountain View Whisman School District proposal to install new perimeter fencing at Monta Loma Elementary School.
The district plans additional fencing at seven of its campuses. But the proposed change from limited to extensive fencing at Monta Loma, located on Thompson Avenue, had residents fearing it would cut off public access to open space already in short supply in the north Mountain View neighborhood.
District officials cited student and teacher safety as the reason for additional fencing, but residents wondered whether the plans did more harm than good and, in the words of one speaker, constituted “a solution looking for a problem.”
District Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph, in a Jan. 26 presentation before the council, said the district owns the land, even as a 20-plus-year shared-use agreement allows access to residents in exchange for city upkeep of the open space.
Even so, Rudolph reminded residents and council members, “These are not parks we are talking about, these are fields that are adjacent to the school. … We’re responsible for the safety of 5,200 students, 600 staff members. While many of us enjoy the open campus feel, the reality is (that) our staff members regularly have to approach adults on campus who are not authorized to be there.”
He pointed to cases of dog bites and bike thefts, prompting installation of “bike cages.”
“Parents and staff members have shared concerns about potentially violent events,” Rudolph said.
The fencing proposals stem from a district safety town hall meeting in 2018. Fencing and security cameras are part of a master facilities plan approved in December 2019. Funding comes from Measure T, the $259 million bond voters backed in the March 2020 primary election.
“While fences and security cameras will not stop someone who is determined to hurt children and staff, they are deterrents,” Rudolph said.
He cited a state penal code that prohibits trespassing on school grounds from one hour prior to when class starts to one hour after. But that was news to some residents, who were under the impression they were using city parks.
Rudolph’s presentation also met with skepticism from council members.
Councilmember Alison Hicks, who called the fencing proposals “a really important issue,” said the concerns are “so different” from when she was a young mother with a child at Castro Elementary School.
“I’m a little shocked to hear information about a penal code,” she said, citing “hours of access that seem to be continually eroding.”
“What we’re talking about here is all about the physical barriers,” Councilmember Pat Showalter said, suggesting “people and programming” are better solutions.
Rudolph noted the fields are open to the public off-hours on weekdays and weekends.
“What we are concerned about is during school hours,” he said. “Doing nothing is not an option.”
Speakers suggested tighter perimeter fences around the school classrooms so that field access could be left open. But Rudolph said that option would cut off access for the students.
Resident Scott Williams cited the 2018 mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., and an Arizona State University study that indicated the threat of violence was more of an issue within the schools community than from outside.
“I wonder about the efficacy of trying to fence out violence if the violence sometimes comes from inside our schools,” he said.
“Hardware does not create safety,” declared Isaac Taylor, a self-described security expert who has worked with Google Inc. and the U.S. government. “You can’t buy what the superintendent says he wants – you have to do it. Safety is the result of work by people, it’s the result of leadership and culture, and it requires active supervision by adults.”
Jessica Chohan, representing the Preserve Monta Loma Park group, pointed to the current disparity in park space between city neighborhoods north of El Camino Real and neighborhoods to the south. She said 76% of park space between El Camino and Highway 101 is on school district property and subject to fencing, while district land accounts for only 30% of open space south of El Camino.
“We’re here to request the city does the right thing,” she said. “I believe the city is in a unique position to bring our parties together. … (This is) larger than just a school district proposal. Parks and open space are important to the community.”
Although there was clear disagreement, council members and Rudolph indicated a willingness to work toward a compromise solution.
“We’re going to have to find common ground,” Rudolph said.
He noted the formation of a Monta Loma “work group” comprising community members, parents, district staff and a parks and recreation representative that would offer compromise recommendations. The group’s first meeting is scheduled Feb. 25.
Council members agreed to provide general direction on fencing at Monta Loma and other district schools at their Feb. 23 meeting.