Build fences around Fremont schools, limit access, police say

By Wes Bowers, STAFF WRITER

 

FREMONT — The police department is asking the school district to consider imposing tighter controls on who enters and exits its campuses as part of an effort to keep gang activity down.

In a joint meeting with the district’s Board of Education and Fremont City Council earlier this week, police Capt. Tom Mikkelsen offered suggestions for what police call “closed campuses.”

An ideal closed campus, Mikkelsen said, would have fencing around the school and have only one or two doors open during school hours for entry and exit to a school so staff members can better observe who visits the site.

Closing campuses was just one of several things the district can do to help combat gangs, Mikkelsen and Police Chief Craig Steckler said during the meeting.

Gang members inside and outside schools should be easy to spot because of their attire, the way they practice intimidation, and their defiance of authority, Steckler said.

Gangs are very different from what they were even 20 years ago, mostly due to increased violent activity and easy access to weapons, he said.

“Our street officers are aware of the gang presence on Fremont. We get data sheets on gangs in Fremont, and SROs (student resource officers) are the first line of defense against any gang activity in the schools.”

Steckler, while delivering the department’s report on student resource officers who patrol local high schools, also said they had categorized and counted gang members in Fremont schools by age.

About 120 gang members in Fremont public schools are 17 years old, 63 are 16 years old, 32 are 15 years old, 12 are 14 years old, and three are 13 years old, he said, for a total of 230 identified gang members.

It was difficult to pinpoint how many 18-year-olds were gang members because it would take additional research to determine if the teen was in high school or not, he said. Because of that, 18-year-olds were not included in the report, he said.

In all, Steckler said, there are 970 gang members in the police department’s database who live in the city.

In the Tri-City area, there are 3,218 identified gang members. About 1,900 of those claim affiliations with the Norteno street gang, while 690 are members of the rival Sureno gang. Another 390 belong to various Asian gangs and 53 are white. Another 243 are members of other various gangs, he said.

Mikkelsen offered three suggestions for combatting gang activity on campuses:

  • Enact a policy in which school officials could identify whether or not a student is an active gang member. Mikkelsen said this would help student resource officers keep an eye on suspected troublemakers as well as help keep campuses safe.
  • Restrict gang colors such as red and blue from being worn on campus. The captain said this policy would need to be consistent in all Fremont schools.
  • “Close” campuses. “By closing campuses, you increase the safety of students and keep unwanted visitors off campuses,” Mikkelsen said. “And closing campuses can’t mean students simply can’t leave for lunch.”The police captain added that a “closed campus” policy would have prevented a homicide from occurring last year at a shopping center across the street from Irvington High School.

    On Oct. 23, 2007, a 24-year-old man was fatally shot outside the Meadow Square Shopping Center at 12:20 p.m., during Irvington High’s lunch hour. Later that day, police arrested a 17-year-old transient, an 18-year-old Menlo Park man and an 18-year-old Fremont man. Police believe the shooting was gang-related.

    Lara York, a school board member, said one district school, American High School, has been “closed” for several years.

    But Mikkelsen said it is not a truly closed campus.

    “In theory it’s closed,” he said. “Students can’t leave at lunch, but the doors aren’t watched. Kids can come in and out at any time of the day, and there are several doors on campus that provide easy access to the school.”

    Board members said there were plans to “close” all high schools campuses once remodeling projects are finished.

    However, at many board meetings, members did not like the idea of putting fencing around district campuses. They also found it difficult to keep students entertained during non-instructional hours such as lunchtime, as well as funding staff members to lead activities during those hours.

    “It’s unfortunate, but that’s the world we live in today,” Steckler said. “Anyone can walk in or out of a school.

    “We’re not immune from another Columbine incident,” he said, referring to a massacre at a Colorado school in 1999. “If you truly want safe campuses, they should be closed. And by closed, we mean some type of fencing with limited access through your doors.”

    Board member Peggy Herndon said closed campuses were still an issue for discussion at board meetings.

    “We have about 10,000 students in our high schools, and when you look at this number (230), it’s relatively small,” she said. “This is an issue and something to put into perspective, but we want people to know it’s a small number, but significant, and we’re looking at how to address it.”

    Mayor Bob Wasserman, a former Fremont police chief, said gangs are different from what they were in years past.

    “The difference between gangs now and then is violence,” Wasserman said. “Gangs then did things that were undesirable and upsetting, but they didn’t go kill people. … But now they have easy access to weapons and they know how to use them.

    “There are far worse places than Fremont, and let’s hope Fremont doesn’t get that way,” he said

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