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Grand jury critiques district

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
December 20, 2007

The high school district serving students between Belmont and Woodside violated its open-enrollment policies when it allowed nearly 2,300 students to matriculate at Carlmont High School last fall — in excessof the school’s 2,100-student capacity — according to the San Mateo County civil grand jury.

Rather than redistribute the additional students to other high schools in the Sequoia High School District, some of which are under capacity, the district spent $350,000 to hire three new teachers and one new administrator to handle the overload at the Belmont campus, according to a report from the grand jury released Wednesday.

“Everyone, including the principal, feels that Carlmont is overbooked,” district Superintendent Pat Gemma said.

Carlmont’s reputation as a good school, coupled with its proximity to San Carlos’ booming population of families with kids, has contributed to the school’s popularity, said Emily Sarver, president of the Carlmont Parent Teacher Student Association.

“Parents want their child to go to a local high school, and it’s closer than Sequoia High School,” Sarver said. “Kids want to go to the same school as their friends from middle school.”

Through open enrollment, the Sequoia High School District allows students to attend any of its four schools. In 2007-08, 200 to 250 students enrolled from outside Carlmont’s boundaries, which encompass San Carlos and Belmont.

While district leaders say they do not regret their decision to let Carlmont fill up, they are taking steps to bring the high school’s population down to 2,100 within a few years.

“I disagree that we’re not following our policy,” trustee Olivia Martinez said. “Carlmont is handling the number of students just fine.”

A new school-bond measure on the February 2008 ballot would raise money for more classroom space at Carlmont and a new charter high school in East Palo Alto, where many of Carlmont’s students live, according to Martinez.

In addition, other high schools — particularly Sequoia High School — are promoting their programs in order to draw the interest of potential students. Next year, Carlmont will only let in 80 students from outside the school’s boundaries.

“That way, in two to three years the school will be down to its established capacity,” Gemma said.

The grand jury recommended that the district re-examine its open-enrollment practices and make sure its policies are followed. However, such recommendations are not enforced, according to grand jury foreman Gerald Yaffee.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 20, 2007 at 10:27 PM

SUV jumps curb, strikes Belmont students

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Staff Report
May 2, 2007

Children screamed, dove and ducked for cover as a champagne-colored Honda Pilot careened into a group of students outside Ralston Middle School on Wednesday afternoon, trapping three of them underneath the vehicle.

Backpacks were left strewn across the sidewalk and a chunk of bark was torn from the trunk of a tree after the impact. Within a minute of the crash, a school custodian rushed to the scene with a vehicle jack from his own car and hoisted the sport utility vehicle off the students trapped underneath. Thirteen students in all were hospitalized, some with serious injuries, though the injuries did not appear to be life-threatening, officials said.

“As the kids were fleeing, some of them couldn’t get out of the way fast enough and the car came down on them,” said Barbara Beebe, who saw the crash as she picked up her 12-year-old daughter from school. She said the SUV veered up onto two wheels before striking students and a tree at the school’s loading zone, where SamTrans buses pick up and drop off students.

Beebe said the driver — identified as 70-year-old Redwood Shores resident Mauro Yan — was attempting to drive between two of the SamTrans buses when he accelerated over the red curb into a tree, just a few feet from a wall of windows on the side of the school.

Yan, who appeared shaken at the scene as he spoke with police and other officials, was taken away on a stretcher, treated at Kaiser Redwood City and released. A woman answering the door at his residence late Wednesday afternoon said he was OK but did not want to comment on the crash.

Students had been let out at 12:35 p.m. on Wednesday because of a shortened day for state standardized testing. The crash is believed to have happened moments after school let out.

One eighth-grader, who asked that her name not be used, said she heard a loud popping sound and saw the car jump the curb, hitting a group of five students who she said were all eighth-graders, some classmates of hers.

She saw at least two of the boys duck and cover to protect themselves as the SUV flew toward them.

Andre Edwards, the school’s head custodian and track coach, said a student he pulled from under the SUV was bleeding, but conscious.

“You don’t think. You just react,” Edwards said.

Belmont Lt. Dan DeSmidt said by the time emergency personnel arrived minutes after the crash, Ralston staff had already begun tending to the injured students and controlling the crowd of onlookers.

“Our staff was very quick, very calm, very decisive,” Principal Maggie O’Reilly said.

Officers from the Belmont-San Carlos, Pacifica, Redwood City, North County and San Mateo County fire departments, California Highway Patrol and Belmont Police Department took injured students away to awaiting emergency medical personnel.

Fourteen people — 13 students and the driver — were taken in for medical care. Belmont-San Carlos Fire Chief Doug Fry said the injuries ranged from simple cuts and bruises to broken bones and possible head or back injuries.

Victims were taken to five area hospitals, depending on the severity of their injuries. Stanford University Medical Center and San Francisco General Hospital each received four victims in their trauma centers. One student was airlifted to the trauma center at Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley. Two students went to Sequoia Hospital and another was taken to Kaiser in Redwood City.

By Wednesday evening, none of the students were in life-threatening condition, according to DeSmidt. DeSmidt said no charges have been filed, and none are likely until the police department can complete its investigation of the incident.

School prepares to help emotional classmates
As Ralston Middle School students return to school today, staff and counselors will be on hand to help them cope with the shock of witnessing an out-of-control sport utility vehicle injuring their classmates Wednesday.

Students were taking state-mandated standardized tests this week, but those tests will be canceled today and Friday to give students time to reflect on the accident and expresstheir anxiety and feelings, Ralston Middle School Principal Maggie O’Reilly said.

“It’s very shocking to have a car go airborne and then strike their friends,” O’Reilly said. “We will spend the day talking about the incident with the kids.”

School faculty immediately leapt into action following the accident, in which a 2005 Honda Pilot, driven by Mauro Yan of Redwood Shores, barreled into a crowd of students waiting to board a bus and sent 13 of them to area hospitals. Yan was there to pick up a student after classes, but it’s unclear what his relationship to the student or the school is, Belmont Police Department Lt. Dan DeSmidt said.

Although several of the students taken to hospitals were treated for injuries sustained during the accident, others were hospitalized primarily for shock and anxiety, said Doug Fry, Belmont-San Carlos Fire Department Chief. Two of them witnessed the accident from inside one of the buses, O’Reilly said.

Margaret Goldsmith, president of the Ralston Middle School PTA, said parents quickly circulated the news following Wednesday’s accident. Both she and her daughter know all of the students who were involved.

Her daughter is “concerned, but doing OK,” Goldsmith said. “It’s tragic and scary and shocking.”

Belmont Mayor Coralin Feierbach worried about the long-term psychological effects an incident like this would have on the students, particularly so soon after a gunman opened fire at Virginia Tech April 14, killing 33 people, including himself.

“It scares children. They hear that someone comes in and shoots people at school, and then this happens,” Feierbach said.

The accident also raises questions about the safety of after-school transportation for students.

Ralston Middle School’s students were hit while waiting to board the SamTrans buses the school uses in place of typical yellow school buses. The campus has a horseshoe-shaped parking area that is typically packed with buses and parents picking up their kids after school, Goldsmith said.

Feierbach agreed that traffic near the school gets heavy when students leave for the day.

“Maybe we need to look at busing again — maybe that would help,” Feierbach said.

— Beth Winegarner

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

May 2, 2007 at 10:57 PM

Posted in Belmont, Breaking news

City could declare smoking a nuisance

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
October 23, 2006

BELMONT — City officials continue to hunt for a way to declare smoking a nuisance, a move that would allow residents to sue one another over the creation of secondhand smoke.

Many locals have requested the move, particularly those living in apartment complexes with cigarette-smoking neighbors.

George Hubbard, who lives with his mother in an Irene Court apartment, keeps his windows closed around the clock because his downstairs neighbors chain-smoke on their balcony, he said in a letter to the City Council.

“We have brought up the situation to the [building’s] owner and manager, and they refuse to do anything,” according to Hubbard, who cannot move because he is currently unemployed. “We have exhausted all means of seeking help … so far, the law says we do not have a case.”

The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors in April banned smoking in common areas of multi-unit housing — and within 30 feet of county-owned buildings — but the ban does not apply to tenants smoking in apartments or on private balconies.

In September, after another resident asked the City Council to declare smoking a public nuisance, City Attorney Marc Zefferano began researching Belmont’s options. Cities such as Dublin have already passed similar measures, according to a report Zefferano will deliver to the City Council Tuesday night.

Zefferano is expected to bring a proposed ordinance to the City Council at a future meeting.

“This doesn’t involve the city, but puts it through the courts,” Vice Mayor Coralin Feierbach said. “I’d like to get rid of smoking altogether, but the least we can do is give people some relief.”

Meanwhile, officials in neighboring San Carlos want to find ways to crack down on downtown smokers who litter the sidewalks with their cigarette butts, according to Mayor Matt Grocott.

“We’re not looking to ban smoking, but smoking is one of the major littering problems we have,” Grocott said. “But if you come down on people too hard, you chase them out of downtown.”

Local and state smoking crackdowns are ongoing. The San Mateo County Transit District banned smoking in its bus shelters in January. That same month, Burlingame adopted an ordinance urging smokers to light up further away from city parks and sports fields.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

October 23, 2006 at 9:11 PM

Posted in Belmont

Police: Ordinance needs equipment to get going

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
October 6, 2006

BELMONT — City officials have begun enforcing a new, stricter noise ordinance that was quietly adopted this summer, but officers say they don’t yet have the equipment they need to determine when something is too loud.

Until recently, Belmont’s noise rules applied mainly to construction noise and devices such as leaf blowers, but didn’t provide any protection from noisy residents, according to Councilwoman Coralin Feierbach. The new rules, which took effect Aug. 24, set a hard cap on noise: if you’re measuring it from a residential property, no noise can be louder than 65 decibels duringthe day or 55 decibels at night.

Normal speech from about five feet away is 55 decibels, according to Community Development Director Carlos De Melo.

One annual Belmont event — a back-to-school concert at Notre Dame De Namur University — was shut down at 9:30 p.m. on a weeknight after multiple neighbors complained to local police and to Feierbach, who went to the college to shut down the event.

“The band was playing as loud as it could possibly be playing. That was completely against the noise ordinance,” she said.

However, officers in the city’s police department and code-enforcement division — the ones who will be responding to the bulk of Belmont’s noise complaints — do not have decibel meters to determine when someone has exceeded the new limits, according to Belmont Police Sgt. Patrick Halleran.

“We don’t have meters and we haven’t been trained on them yet,” Halleran said. “That’s something we have to work through.”

Ordering those meters, and performing some outreach and education so that locals know the new ordinance exists and how it works, is a top city priority in the coming weeks, according to De Melo. He plans to recommend ordering two meters that will cost Belmont about $500 each.

Until then, Belmont noisemakers may wind up receiving some surprise visits from police or local officials, as the university did.

“We’ll do everything we can to avoid it being an issue, but I can’t guarantee we’ll never have an event that some neighbors won’t complain about,” said Notre Dame de Namur spokesman Richard Rossi. “It is a college town.”

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

October 6, 2006 at 9:05 PM

Posted in Belmont