Thursday, June 23, 2016
[Solano County] Grand jury unleashes scathing report on safety of Vallejo’s high schools
Vallejo’s high schools are rife with safety concerns, facilities issues and bullying, according to a civil grand jury report released Wednesday.
In the 40-page document, the Solano County Grand Jury found “numerous issues which need to be addressed” with both Vallejo and Jesse Bethel high schools, after interviewing students, teachers, school board members, parents, and district administrators.
During interviews with students from both high schools, grand jury members “learned most, yet not all of (the students) feel safe at school.”
“However, all said fights, cellphone thefts, and marijuana use are major problems,” the report added. “In spite of both schools maintaining closed campuses, several students told us it’s easy to leave campus and have witnessed students leaving during school hours to smoke marijuana. All but one student have seen weapons on their campuses which, we learned, are easy to conceal.”
The report also notes that teachers interviewed “feel safe at school, but some know colleagues who don’t, and some will not remain on campus after dark.”
Teachers also noted that “it’s easy for students to leave campus and there are unsupervised areas without surveillance cameras on both campuses where students congregate.”
The grand jury’s investigation also found the Vallejo City Unified School District and individual high school websites “contain very little public information” on anti-bullying/discrimination policies.
According to the grand jury, links on the district’s anti-bullying web page are broken.
While interviewing district teachers, the grand jury received comments about “the lack of consistency by the district administration in notifying teachers when a student assigned to their classroom had previously engaged in criminal, disruptive or dangerous conduct related to school or school attendance.”
The report notes that state law, the district’s safety plan, and a clause within the teacher’s contract all stipulate that teachers will be notified about such students.
“Our investigation revealed teachers find notification to be very untimely (sometimes months after the student has been in class), inconsistent at best and sometimes non-existent,” the report states. “On inquiry in this regard, administration expressed concern for student privacy despite state legislation and their own safety standards.
“The administration also misquoted the district’s own rules, indicating notification was required only when the juvenile justice system (police/probation department) was formally involved,” the report added.
The grand jury also investigated the number of police service calls made during the current and previous school years.
According to statistics compiled by the grand jury, Vallejo High’s calls for the service for the 2015-16 school year are about 49, down from 76 the previous school year. Likewise, Jesse Bethel’s calls were about 38 for the current year, 14 less from 2014-15.
Most of the service calls are in response to battery and robbery incidents, according to the grand jury. Weapons and drug related calls were made at both schools, as well.
The investigation also looked at service calls for battery on school employees.
“Replying to our inquiry regarding school employees who had been victims of battery the district would only say ‘we had a few arrests for battery (student/student), as well as on teachers,’” according to the report. “The definition of battery provided to the grand jury by the district was ‘touching another person and the person feeling victimized.’
“Both VHS and JBHS student handbooks take their definition of battery from the California Penal Code 242 which calls battery ‘an unlawful and willful use of force or violence upon the person of another,’” the report added. “The schools and California Penal Code apparently choose to use stronger language for battery than does the district.”
During site visits, the grand jury team witnessed two Vallejo High site safety officers using cell phones while students within their vicinity “were milling around between classes with little or no response from site supervisors.” The team also inspected bathrooms at both schools, stating it “was not a pleasant experience.”
“The walls of the rest rooms at both campuses are painted black to discourage graffiti,” the report noted. “Additionally, it was observed there was insufficient lighting to offset this darkroom effect. Even though we visited JBHS on a Monday morning, at least one rest room had no toilet tissue and one of the women’s rest rooms was littered and unsanitary. VHS also had no toilet tissue in one or more rest rooms and one rest room was closed.”
The grand jury did applaud the district for its “hard work and dedication.”
“While philosophies and methods may differ, the grand jury’s extensive interviews found every interviewee was passionate about the well-being of the students and their futures,” the report states. “Transparency is the key, as no one wants to think they are lied to or are shielded from the truth. As long as the facts, no matter how painful, are shared with the community everyone feels they are a stakeholder and all can participate in the process of making our schools safer and better.
Several requests for comment from Superintendent Ramona Bishop and district spokeswoman Alana Shackelford were not returned.
Wednesday’s report joins three others released by the grand jury since 2013. In the first report from May 2013, the grand jury investigated concerns of safety issues at Vallejo High. A year later, a second report was released in which the grand jury reviewed all 10 comprehensive high schools in Solano County. However, the report reserved much of its criticism for the two Vallejo sites, pointing out that they have higher dropout, truancy and suspension rates than the other eight. A third report chastised a VCUSD employee — later identified as Bishop — for releasing confidential student information when she sent an email containing the last names of two students to Vallejo’s mayor, the VCUSD board, the Solano County District Attorney’s Office and the Vallejo Chief of Police.
June 22, 2016
By John Glidden