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Opinion: Kennedy Middle School 'Chaperones' Either Need Instructional Guidance, or Some Common Sense

An opinion piece by Spectrum Magazine publisher Steve Penna on the recent arrest of five students, accused of attempting to rape two 12-year-old female students during the course of a field trip.

I, like most of you, was shocked when I heard about the five students who have been accused of trying to rape two 12-year-old girls on a school field trip to Stulsaft Park in March. The girls did not report the incident until the last week of school, when they told their school counselor they had been sexually assaulted on the outing. The counselor immediately informed the school principal, Warren Sedar who, in turn, informed police, which led to the boys being taken into custody during one of the last days of the school year.

The boys, ages 13 and 14, appeared in juvenile court last month at the Youth Services Center in Belmont, and are being charged with felony counts of intent to commit rape, sexual battery, and committing a lewd act on a minor under the age of 14 by force. They were arraigned and set for trial this month. According to District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, the boys cannot be charged as adults, and are being charged as juveniles. This means, if convicted, they cannot be held past their 25th birthdays. It has not yet been disclosed whether any of the students are undocumented residents.

School district authorities said the alleged attack occurred on March 4, when 20 Kennedy Middle School students went to the park, accompanied by a teacher and an aide. The 10-to-1 ratio is in accordance with policy. Reports indicate that there were also two adult chaperones on the outing.

The juveniles all belonged to an optional newcomers class for students who’ve been in the country less than one year. The district didn’t disclose whether the students involved in the crime were separated from the others as part of the program, or left the larger group on their own. But, what is known is that the students were out of the supervision of any adult or school official for an extended amount of time.

The district is conducting an internal investigation of the incident and the safety procedures in place, stated school district Superintendent Jan Christensen. She also stated that she was “very distressed by the report."

“Nothing matters more to us than the safety of our students, and we are thankful the police acted quickly after the students reported this incident to their counselor. Our first priority is to assure that students are always safe at school and on field trips,” Christensen said in a prepared statement.

Yes, indeed, police have acted fast and often, in regard to the middle school. In fact, during the last school year, police received an average of 1.5 calls per school day from Kennedy administrators and also from concerned neighbors, according to police reports obtained by Patch and myself.

Throughout the school year, there was one report of sexual battery on Sept. 9, in addition to the attempted rape incident. Other charges included: three reports of assault or battery, seven reports of possession or possible possession of marijuana by a minor, six arrests, four reports of attempted robbery and one of attempted theft, three reports of vandalism, one report of obstructing or resisting a peace officer, one online impersonation with intent to harm, and four reports of mentally disturbed individuals.

Sounds safe to me?

So, the incident at Stulsaft is obviously a continuation of unlawful activities that occur on the westside campus daily. Kennedy Principal Sedar has since been reassigned to another school but, according to district officials, the move was planned before the incident came to light.

One’s first instinct would naturally be to blame the school district and the faculty and adults involved—which I do to a certain extent.

Should parents expect their children to be supervised the entire time they are on a field trip? I say, Yes--most certainly, in one form or another. Where were these adults? To let a group of seven students go off on their own at Stulsaft Park, where there are unknown adults, gang activity, graffiti, homeless residents and other people not connected with the school or district roaming the park—and to let them do so for a long period of time—is, in my opinion, unreasonable, and, to be quite honest, irresponsible.

Had they not been allowed to go off on their own, this incident would not have happened and these seven children’s lives would not have been changed negatively, forever. I don’t know if it is the right time for the blame game, but it is time for district officials to recognize that current policies need to change.

It is unacceptable for this type of activity to be related to any school, district or activity in our community. Students are sent to school with the basic expectation of being safe and supervised. Is that now too much to ask?

Although all media outlets picked up and reported on the incident, there has been minimal outcry from our community or parents in the district. I would go out on a limb and say that it is most likely because the students involved were in this country less than a year and therefore perceived as being Latino. I can assure you, had this incident been reported by students of upper-class Caucasian families, our district officials would be preparing their resignation letters. Where are our Latino community leaders?

In the meantime, district officials are awaiting an incident report before discussing possible action. Much will depend on the details of reports, including whether the staff members responsible for the safety of the students should be disciplined or dismissed. They are also promising their own investigation and a review of safety policies and procedures when it comes to off-campus school trips.

Until then, five young boys are awaiting trial and will most likely be severely punished for the rest of their lives. Two girls have to deal with being traumatized and abused, while their parents are undoubtedly talking to attorneys about lawsuits.

All this, when all of them should have been in an environment where they were protected. Very sad indeed. Let’s hope things do change.

Steve Hayes July 10, 2011 at 02:52 PM
Obviously, if the allegations are true then the incident was horrible. The school district seems to be doing the right thing by "awaiting an incident report before discussing possible action". The students involved are innocent until proven guilty and so far we have heard one side of a story. Clearly, if four adults are watching 20 students and if roughly half (7) are allowed to go off on their own unsupervised there is a problem - regardless of what the students are up to. This "Opinion" seems to be more of a rant than anything else - lots of blame without offering any suggested improvements and I am still trying to figure out how the headline ties into the rest of the commentary. To me, one solution would be to get more parents involved both on campus and on field trips. As class sizes get larger due to budget issues it will be important to supplement teachers with more volunteer parents.
hms July 10, 2011 at 03:30 PM
I agree.
Sharon Levin July 10, 2011 at 03:31 PM
Let's discuss this as adults and leave racism out of it.
Sharon Levin July 10, 2011 at 03:40 PM
Speaking of racism, as a past parent at Kennedy I take great offense at the line "I would go out on a limb and say that it is most likely because the students involved were in this country less than a year and therefore perceived as being Latino" We were in the Redwood City School District for 12 years and something I never, NEVER saw was a lack of concern for any minority student. This comment is not "going out on a limb" it is calling a group of people racist with no substantiation. And, as I've said before, I have been a chaperone on field trips and as they get older, we do have fewer adults and allow more unsupervised time. If there had been no indication that these boys were not trustworthy (and I do not know the history) then there is no reason not to let them off on their own. My daughters often go with groups of friends to hang out at Stulsaft and it is not a scary, dangerous place (okay, unless you're allergic to poison oak, which is why my eldest actually has stopped going to Stulsaft). These boys, if they did what they are accused of, did something terrible and that is what the court is going to figure out. Continuing to place blame elsewhere is an exercise in futility.
Marlene July 10, 2011 at 03:55 PM
I agree with Sharon If the boys are guilty, being unsupervised may have given them the opportunity but it did not create the crime. My sense is that, again if they are guilty, and were not given the opportunity on this field trip, they would have found another opportunity to commit the crime another time. The boys' lives are not wrecked by a lack of supervision on the field trip, but by their own actions.
Kathi Petrick July 10, 2011 at 04:22 PM
I have to defend Kennedy Middle School and the RWC School District...SAFETY is important and implemented. As a former Kennedy parent and a former member of the Violence Prevention Committee with the RWC School District, they immediately handle all situations..Unfortunately we live in a world unfree of wrong doings. No matter if you live in Redwood City, San Mateo, Atherton, Palo Alto or in the mountains...there is always going to be something happening at the schools. Kennedy is not a BAD school. Both of my daughters had a wonderful education & experience there.. This article emphasizes negativity when the GOOD in the school & District outweigh one off year. Every year will be different as kids come & go. KENNEDY is NOT a BAD school or my children would have never attended there. Thank goodness for those police calls...I applaud the NO TOLERANCE rule the Administration at Kennedy & the District have implemented... PARENTS are the one's responsible for raising their children..Not the teachers or anyone else..
Sarah July 10, 2011 at 05:14 PM
I take offense at the south of the border comment...I have had tons of interaction with kids of other ethnic groups in our school district and my experience has always been that they are more respectful than the white kids. I escorted a group of eight 7th and 8th grade boys to Alcatraz years ago (when my kids were in 3rd grade and lower - they needed extra chaperones and I volunteered). They were all very respectful to me. Much more respectful than most white kids I have chaperoned over the years. You cannot group these boys in with the larger group as a whole. Also, police get called to other middle schools in other districts...it is not just a RCSD problem. Menlo Park has issues at Hillview, too.
hms July 10, 2011 at 06:26 PM
Not at this time.
Sean July 10, 2011 at 06:27 PM
I atteneded and used to live right next Kennedy. With all of the crimes reported here, what has happened to this school? Times have certainly changed.
hms July 10, 2011 at 06:28 PM
The comment was a mistake and meant for something else, sorry, I'm trying to get used to this website.
Steve Penna July 10, 2011 at 07:00 PM
Great idea! I am positive that the district will be looking at increasing the number of adults on field trips.
Steve Penna July 10, 2011 at 07:06 PM
I would agree with you on your statement: "We were in the Redwood City School District for 12 years and something I never, NEVER saw was a lack of concern for any minority student." My comments were directed at the Parents in the district and our community's lack of reaction and not the school district or staff. I agree the district and teachers are very supportive of all students regardless of ethnic background.
Steve Penna July 10, 2011 at 07:13 PM
Very well stated! I have been thinking a great deal about your statement: "PARENTS are the one's responsible for raising their children..Not the teachers or anyone else.." and it really hits home for me and I agree 100%. There is way to much responsibility put on teachers now a-days to "raise" their students. I think the "NO TOLERANCE rule the Administration at Kennedy & the District have implemented" is a big first step to letting parents know these types of behavior will not be accepted . . .
DR July 10, 2011 at 07:46 PM
I also take offense to the "newcomer" comments. It is not fair to blame the "south of the border" population. The students should have been with an adult. They shouldn't have the opportunity to make the wrong decision while school staff is responsible for their well being.
Sharon Levin July 10, 2011 at 11:43 PM
Okay, then rather than be offended for the district, I will be offended for myself. It is not the ethnicity of these students that has colored my perception at all. I have been a parent at Kennedy and I do not believe the supervision was lacking. I think the ratio was just fine between adults and kids. I would not feel differently if these girls were Anglo and I do believe this is a matter for the courts to sort out.
Philippe July 11, 2011 at 04:04 PM
John F. Kennedy Middle School ranks a 4 out of 10 on http://www.greatschools.org. That web site also indicates that 73% of the students are Hispanic, with 96% speaking Spanish at home. 39% are English language learners. This is a middle school and 39% are still learning English? Although my opinion rarely resonates with that of Spectrum I second this question: Where are our Latino community leaders?
Corrin Rankin July 11, 2011 at 08:02 PM
I’m sure this is not a racial issue. The fact that there 263 calls to the police during the last school year is outrageous. There is NO way to justify this number. The issue is that there were 263 documented calls. There is something really wrong when the police are being called up to a middle school more than once a day for an entire school year. You can’t skate around this issue. 263 calls a year. 263 calls a year. This is an alarming number. I think 25 calls a year is too many. The neighbors should never feel as if they need to call the police regarding the “middle school” in their neighborhood. There shouldn’t be this many calls period. Kennedy needs to make changes period. At this point parents and the district NEED to get involved. @Sharon Levin you are a great basketball coach. There is no doubt as to your personal commitment, but 263 calls in my opinion is unacceptable and there is no “positive spin” you or anyone else can place on this issue. As a parent of two former Kennedy students and one current student I know all too well and much more than what is in this article.
Sharon Levin July 12, 2011 at 10:06 PM
Hi Corrin! Thanks for the nice comment about my coaching. I miss my girls, please tell your daughter hi for me. If she plays next year, tell her I'll come to her games, she brings a lot to the court. Corrin, I do know that's a lot of calls, but it's still just a statistic. I have a friend who lives in a lovely, safe neighborhood. However, you might see a lot of calls to the police because she has very loud neighbors who party a lot (and late). If I were to see only the number of calls, I might think that she lived in an unsafe place. I'd like to know more about these calls. Is it neighbors who object to kids hanging out near their homes? How many are coming from the school itself? Just having a number without more details is not enough for me. Again, I felt like my girls were safe at Kennedy and that (for the most part) they got a great education.
Georgia Jack July 13, 2011 at 01:57 AM
My opinion on this thread can be found here: http://redwoodcity.patch.com/blog_posts/inflaming-the-crowd
Zeke Mead July 20, 2011 at 03:48 AM
The high number of calls is not a sign of a change in the students as it is a change in society post Columbine, etc. Districts call in any and all issues now so they can't be accused of ignoring something that turns into a kid coming to school and going goofy.
Elaine Park July 20, 2011 at 05:28 PM
In response to Philippe's comment -- I would imagine most of that 39% of English Learners is composed of children who are new to Redwood City, not children who have been in the District for 7 years. I'd love Steve to do some more research into police calls received from other middle schools in the area. Is Kennedy an anomoly, or is this normal for a middle school in these times? Zeke makes an excellent point. I know of at least one instance where police were called to a school due to a problem with a child with behavior issues. It was done to follow procedure, not because the police were required on the scene. It would be good to know more about the follow up on these calls from Kennedy -- how many translated into a criminal act, how many were irritated neighbors, how many were false alarms, etc?

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