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Local leaders to celebrate Year of the Ox

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Beth Winegarner
San Francisco Examiner
January 30, 2009

For David Chiu, coming to San Francisco — with its thriving, thronging Chinese American community and its all-out celebration of the Chinese New Year — was something of a revelation.

The new Board of Supervisors president, representing North Beach and Chinatown, grew up in Boston, where the feasting and festivities of the Lunar New Year were predominantly a quiet family affair. San Francisco’s celebration, with its hundreds of banquets and internationally celebrated parade, was “great, and frankly, a little overwhelming,” Chiu said.

This week, San Francisco’s Chinese-­American community ushered in the Year of the Ox the same way as past generations: with multi-course meals replete with whole chickens and fish, and noodles for long life. Children will receive much-beloved red envelopes stuffed with coins, and families will perform a ritual of cleaning of the household and lighting a few firecrackers to start the new year with a bang.

The celebration began Monday, the official dawning of the Year of the Ox.

Then, on Feb. 7, some 500,000 people are expect to flock to Chinatown for San Francisco’s annual New Year’s parade, featuring more than 100 floats led by a new, 228-foot-long golden dragon, according to parade director Karen Eng. Most of the holiday traditions hinge on bringing long life and good luck to revelers.

In 2008, the Year of the Rat, couples rushed to get married or have children because the rat is the first sign of the Chinese zodiac, bringing with it the extra luck of a new cycle beginning. The ox, second in the zodiac, carries less significance — but the turning of the year is still a time of tradition.

“Everybody gets new haircuts before New Year’s Day because if you wait, it’s like cutting away your fortune,” Eng said. “Your house has to be cleaned beforehand, otherwise you’re sweeping away your fortune.”

During the Lunar New Year, the color red is everywhere, from paper lanterns to clothing, a suggestion of luck and vitality, according to Judy Hu, spokeswoman for the Chinese Historical Society. Citrus fruits also bring luck because they’re reddish in color.

“My daughter and I eat lots of oranges and tangerines to bring good luck,” said Supervisor Eric Mar, who represents the Richmond district.

Like many in San Francisco’s Chinese community, Mar’s favorite memories of the New Year hinge on food.

“I can still remember the New Year smells of my grandmother’s house,” Mar said. “Even though San Francisco has a fantastic range of Chinese restaurants, my grandmother’s home cooking, especially on Chinese New Year, will always be my favorite.”

Sunset district Supervisor Carmen Chu celebrates the holiday each year with her family, gathering around a spread of candy, fruit and flowers. Getting the whole Chu clan together — especially extended family — is especially meaningful, she said.

“It’s a true community affair,” said Chiu, who — thanks to his new place at the top of the Board of Supervisors — has been asked to attend dozens of New Year’s banquets this month. “I’ve had many wonderful New Year’s dinners with mixed-race groups — it’s a great way for community-building between Chinese and non-Chinese folks.”

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 30, 2009 at 6:48 AM

City’s kids-and-families czar sacked

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
January 29, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — The popular and respected director of The City’s primary agency serving San Francisco’s children and families has been fired by Mayor Gavin Newsom, officials confirmed Wednesday.

Following months of rumors that Newsom planned to fire her, Margaret Brodkin, four-year director of the Department of Children, Youth and Families, said Newsom asked her to leave her post.

“I don’t know the reasons behind [his decision],” Brodkin told The Examiner on Wednesday.

The move leaves youth advocates fearful that as The City faces a projected $576 million budget deficit for next fiscal year, a voter-approved budget set-aside for child-related needs — one of the DCYF’s largest sources of funding — could be in jeopardy.

Newsom is currently in Switzerland for the annual World Economic Forum in Davos. Spokesman Joe Arellano, said he could not discuss the specifics of the firing, citing confidentiality regarding personnel matters.

“Margaret put in great service, but the mayor felt that bringing new blood into DCYF was important,” Arellano said.

Before being hired by Newsom in 2004, Brodkin was the director of the San Francisco nonprofit Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. At Coleman, she led the grassroots campaign that resulted in voters approving a ballot measure establishing The City’s Children’s Fund, which now supplies more than $30 million of DCYF’s $108 million annual budget.

“We’ve been such an engine of productivity,” Brodkin said. “We’ve developed initiatives with 13 other city departments. I don’t think there’s another department in the city that can make that claim.”

The current leaders of Coleman Advocates said they began hearing from City Hall insiders in November that Brodkin had been fired, according to director N’Tanya Lee.

Newsom wouldn’t discuss the rumors with the nonprofit or The Examiner.

“She’s extraordinarily talented, and I like having talented people around me,” Newsom told the Examiner in December.

In the wake of Brodkin’s dismissal, Lee has launched talks with Newsom’s staff about protecting the Children’s Fund — one of a smorgasbord of budget set-asides the mayor has criticized as limiting The City’s budget-balancing options.

“Our fear is that the Children’s Fund will be raided,” Lee said. “With [Brodkin] gone, we fear that [Newsom] will focus on his political ambitions over protecting the safety net for kids.”

Newsom has appointed Brodkin director of the New Day for Learning initiative, a San Francisco-based organization to connect youth with in-school and after-school services.

Deputy DCYF director Maria Su will immediately take over as acting director of the department, according to Arellano.

Temporary leaders
Several City departments are currently headed by “acting” or “interim” directors, including:
Recreation and Park Department: Jared Blumenfeld
Animal Care and Control: Rebecca Katz
Department of Building Inspection: Vivian Day
Department of Emergency Management: Vicky Hennessy
Department of the Environment: David Assmann
Office of Small Business: Regina Dick-Endrizzi
Department of Children, Youth and Families: Maria Su
San Francisco Zoo*: Tanya Peterson
* Not a city department, but receives city funds and is operated on city-owned land

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 29, 2009 at 5:31 AM

Expulsion rate at SFUSD climbs

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
January 23, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — More San Francisco public school students have been expelled since August than in the entire 2007-08 school year, and parents and city leaders are questioning whether the school district is following state laws when disciplining kids.

Between August and December, the San Francisco Unified School District received 81 expulsion requests from schools and expelled 16 students.

The majority of cases were dismissed or referred for counseling, Ricky Jones, the school district’s director of pupil services, said Thursday at a joint meeting of members of the Board of Supervisors and Board of Education.

In 2007-08, 97 students were recommended for expulsion and 11 were expelled. In 2006-07, 79 were recommended and 16 were expelled, Jones said.

“We’re seeing more challenged kids, and times are just tougher,” said Trish Bascom, head of student support services for the school district. “We’re also identifying problems with students sooner, and identifying services for them.”

At the same time, parents say their children missed months of classes while waiting for their expulsion hearings to take place — part of the process of determining whether a student will be permanently kicked out of school.

In Thursday’s hearing on the expulsion process, Jones said his short-staffed office is struggling to handle disciplinary requests quickly. The committee took no action and has no authority with the school district.

State law requires students to be expelled for possessing weapons, selling drugs, attempting or committing sexual assault or possessing an explosive, and recommends expulsion for many other violent acts, according to Jones.

Two parents, Todd Waterman and Ian Hadley, said their sons have been suspended from school for several weeks for nonviolent offenses, and both expulsion case have yet to receive hearings.

“We’ve seen a shift in the past semester, more severe discipline for minor practices,” said Lauren Brady Blalock, an attorney with Legal Services for Children, which represents parents in discipline cases.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 23, 2009 at 5:43 AM

Balance of discipline

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
January 22, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — Blacks and Hispanics are a small slice of The City’s public school population, but make up roughly three-quarters of students who are suspended or expelled.

Blacks make up 7 percent of The City’s total population and 12.5 percent of students within the San Francisco Unified School District. However, half the students who face disciplinary action belong to this ethnic group, according to district data.

Another 20 to 30 percent of those disciplined are Hispanic. They account for 23 percent of school district students and 14 percent of San Francisco’s population.

Leaders within and outside the school district said the numbers are troubling — and more than one cited the data as evidence of racism within SFUSD.

“Just look at the data. We are so wrong, and we want to get to the bottom of it,” said Board of Education member Kim-Shree Maufas. “It may be that this happened over time, through misunderstanding, through cultural incompetence.”

The Board of Education has the authority to approve or deny expulsions, but does not vote on suspension cases, according to SFUSD spokeswoman Gentle Blythe.

Meanwhile, Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier is holding an unrelated hearing today on the SFUSD’s expulsion process. The advisory hearing, hosted by the City and School District Select Committee, will be held at 3:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Board of Education member Jane Kim said she has pushed for more case-by-case information, in part to track which schools or teachers are handing down punishments at higher rates. They should be looking for more creative ways to deter behavior problems, she said.

“We discovered at Galileo High School [that] 80 percent of their suspensions — primarily African-Americans — were being done by one teacher,” Kim said. “It is evidence of racial discrimination that’s left in our schools.”

Two teachers at Galileo High referred a large number of black students for disciplinary action, according to Blythe, who added that both have since retired.

Teachers who discipline minority students may not be conscious they’re doing it, said Dennis Kelly, president of San Francisco’s teachers’ union.

“To the degree that it’s racism, I think it’s subconscious racism,” Kelly said, adding that some teachers avoid disciplining black or Hispanic students for fear that they would be accused of prejudice.

The higher rate of disciplinary measures for some groups of minority students is not unlike SFUSD’s achievement gap, which shows that black and Hispanic students are significantly behind the pace of white and Asian students. Students who are already on shaky ground academically are put at further risk when they miss class due to a suspension.

Although students who are suspended typically return to school within a few days, high school students who are expelled have less chance to make up time missed. They frequently transfer to a continuation school such as Downtown High School, where the dropout rate is nearly 70 percent, according to the California Department of Education.

SFUSD policies urge teachers and principals to consider sending students to counselors or other services when they run into trouble; it also has a peer court — where discipline cases are resolved through mediation — at a handful of schools.

However, overworked educators may not make time for those methods, particularly since filling out a suspension form takes 10 minutes, said Pecolia Manigo, director of youth organizing for Coleman Advocates, a family-focused nonprofit.

“I’ve watched kids get suspended for the dumbest things, like one wouldn’t give his cell phone up,” Manigo said. “Another was talking back to the teacher. You’re suspending kids because they’re being kids.”

Teachers need to make their curriculum more engaging for students whose out-of-school reality involves poverty, violence and family crises, Manigo said.

Hoover Lidell, a consultant to Superintendent Carlos Garcia, said students simply need a challenge, and academic achievement can reduce students’ discipline problems.

“Particularly among black youth, there’s too much remediation, but they’re very capable students,” Lidell said. “By not giving them academic rigor, kids get a second-class education.”

Truancy, dropout rates higher among minorities
Black and Hispanic youths make up the lion’s share of discipline cases in San Francisco public schools — but that’s not the only place they’re overrepresented.

Black kids also made up 38 percent of the students who missed more than 20 days of school during the 2007-08 school year, and 27 percent of black high school students in the class of 2007 dropped out before receiving their diplomas, according to the California Department of Education.

Hispanic students comprised 33 percent of students who missed more than 20 days of school in 2007-08, and 26 percent of Hispanic high school kids dropped out in 2007. Hispanic youths accounted for 24 percent of the Juvenile Hall population in October.

Both District Attorney Kamala Harris and Juvenile Probation Chief William Siffermann have said that students who miss school or drop out wind up in the justice system or become victims of violent crime.

In October, 60 percent of San Francisco Juvenile Hall inmates were black, according to the Juvenile Probation Department.

“At the end of the civil-rights movement, blacks and Latinos were in power; now, these kids are second-class citizens again,” said educator James Calloway, who ran for the Board of Education last fall. “Until we get a grip and call it what it is — racism — it’s not going to get any better.”

Court offers a second chance
Students who run into trouble in San Francisco schools sometimes have the option of facing a court of peers rather than being ousted from school or arrested.

The San Francisco Peer Court, formally launched in 2003, is administered by a San Francisco-based nonprofit mediation and arbitration organization called California Community Dispute Services.

The program operates at Visitacion Valley, Everett and Denman middle schools, and at the Civic Center Secondary School, which is for middle and high school students. Since its founding, 360 youths have moved through the program, diverting 338 days of suspension, 20 expulsions and 25 arrests, according to director Tony Litwak.

Students face disciplinary action for a variety of actions, ranging from fights with fellow students to bringing weapons to school. The mediation process — handled by trained students — forces these students to face their victims and consider the harm they’ve caused, according to Litwak.

“Sentences” range from community service to restitution fines, or even writing papers to learn the effects of what they’ve done.

“When confronted with that, the adolescent understands what they’ve done more concretely,” Litwak said. “Some kids, their behavior is so strong you’re not going to change them. But on the other end, there are kids who are mortified to be [in court].”

Roughly 25 percent of kids who go to court wind up volunteering as mediators, he said.

The San Francisco Unified School District approved a funding increase next year to boost the court’s budget — $212,000 in the 2008-09 school year — but economic shortfalls have forced officials to suspend that funding, according to Board of Education member Jane Kim.

Grounds for suspension, expulsion
The San Francisco Unified School District student handbook outlines some of the grounds for which a student can face disciplinary action:

Suspension
Possession of drugs; explosives; mace or pepper spray without parents’ permission; a stun gun; tobacco products; school keys without authorization
Assault
Graffiti
Hazing
Robbery
Threats or abuse toward fellow students

Expulsion
Selling drugs
Possession of explosives, weapons, stun gun
Arson
Assault
Extortion
Hate violence
Hazing
Robbery
Threats or abuse toward fellow students
Source: SFUSD student handbook

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 22, 2009 at 5:48 AM

Anti-gang program at odds with school

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
January 20, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO — A group that works to deter kids from joining gangs said its programs at Mission High School were banished after organizers protested high suspension rates among Hispanic students. School administrators, however, said it’s a case of miscommunication.

After three years at Mission High, Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth was asked to leave the school in December, when it failed to resolve tensions with school leaders, according to Principal Eric Guthertz.

While HOMEY officials said those tensions arose because of underreported suspensions and expulsions, Guthertz said they had more to do with a lack of organization on the organization’s part. HOMEY officials asked the Board of Education last week to intervene and quickly reinstate their Mission High programs.

The flap comes as Supervisor Michaela Alioto-Pier is holding an unrelated hearing Thursday on San Francisco Unified School District’s expulsion process. The advisory hearing will be at 3:30 p.m. in City Hall.

“We do case management with highest-risk youth, and we were losing six to 10 each semester because of [disciplinary action],” said HOMEY director Rene Quinonez. “A lot of them are monolingual, so when the school sent them home for an afternoon to cool down, they’d often feel they were no longer welcome.”

Program director Jose Luis Pavon accused the school of singling out Hispanic students for disciplinary action.

Mission High School had the highest suspension rate — 180 students out of 924 — among The City’s public schools in 2007-08. Its truancy rate was 52 percent, and 69 percent the prior year, according to the California Department of Education.

Guthertz acknowledged those figures, but said Mission High launched a program this year where teachers and administrators are trained monthly in how to treat students equally. The year-to-date suspension rate has already dropped by half, and only a small percentage are Hispanic, he said.

“We appreciate the work HOMEY does,” Guthertz said. “But there were major issues with their planning and administrative development, and inaccurate accounting. We’re not the only school having problems with them.”

Several students and HOMEY clients lined up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, pleading to bring the group back to Mission High.

“I was on the verge of being on the streets and joining a gang,” said student Raphael Moreno. “Now I’m on my way to a four-year college because of HOMEY.”

District officials are working to mediate an agreement between Mission High and HOMEY officials, according to Jane Kim, vice president of the Board of Education.

Mission High School
2007-08

Enrollment: 924
Truancy rate: 52 percent
Suspensions: 180*
Expulsions: 0

2006-07
Enrollment: 864
Truancy rate: 69 percent
Suspensions: 117
Expulsions: 0

Latino suspensions, districtwide:
2006-07: 983 (26 percent of total)
2007-08: 1104 (27 percent of total)

*Highest number of any school in San Francisco Unified School District

Sources: California Department of Education, SFUSD

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

January 20, 2009 at 5:46 AM

Rec centers ‘stretched very thin’

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Examiner Staff Writer
December 31, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — City-run recreation facilities are understaffed and keep unpredictable hours, vexing locals and prompting an edict from the Controller’s Office that the Recreation and Park Department begin keeping better track of its offerings.

The department staffs 63 facilities, including recreation centers, clubhouses and playgrounds. Staffing at the facilities has dropped steadily since 2004, according to a report from Controller Ben Rosenfield.

As a result, newly renovated recreation centers — such as Upper Noe Valley and Minnie and Lovie Ward — have reopened this year with fewer hours, and don’t have predictable or posted hours, according to Isabel Wade, director of the Neighborhood Parks Council.

“Voters have approved public funds for these facilities, but if people can’t get inside it’s not a big improvement,” said Supervisor Bevan Dufty, who prompted the controller to investigate.

Minnie and Lovie Ward Recreation Center, in the Oceanview neighborhood, opened this fall after a $16.8 million renovation with six staffers. Since then, injuries, transfers and layoffs have reduced its staff to two, according to neighbor Mary Harris.

Neighbors were recently told that a staffer from the Merced Heights Recreation Center would be transferred to Oceanview, but that might mean closing Merced Heights more often, Harris said.

“Right now, we’re stretched very thin,” said Katie Petrucione, finance director for the parks department. “If a given recreation director calls in sick or is on vacation, we have less ability to backfill those posts.”

Three additional recreation directors are being laid off in The City’s midyear budget cuts, Petrucione said.

Before Upper Noe closed for $11.1 million in renovations more than two years ago, it was open during daytime hours seven days a week, according to advocate Alexandra Torre. Now, it’s open fewer hours during the week and is closed Sundays — despite locals’ offers to volunteer time or pay out of pocket for a staffer.

Dufty said he plans to meet with the department’s union to brainstorm ideas for boosting recreation facility hours.

Although interim parks director Jared Blumenfeld said he hadn’t seen the report, the department is aware of problems involving facility hours and is working to remedy them.

“I’m looking at every solution,” Blumenfeld said. “One that would help is to have an electronic key-card system so you can track every facility — so if it’s supposed to open at 8:30 a.m. and isn’t open at 9 a.m., you can send someone to open it.”

Only one facility still faces renovation
After a wave of renovations and reopenings, just one city-run recreation center remains closed for upgrades: Harvey Milk, located at Duboce Park.

Milk has been shuttered since July 2007 for $10.8 million in overhauls to everything from its roof to its elevators.

When the three-story center reopens next April, it will feature a new photo center and darkroom, rehearsal and meeting rooms, a recording studio and office space for staff and the public, according to Lisa Seitz Gruwell, communications director for the Recreation and Park Department.

Programs for the new center are still being finalized, but will include photo classes and youth music programs, Seitz Gruwell said.

Rec and Park celebrated a bevy of recreation facilities in 2008, including, most recently, Sava Pool in the Sunset district. The department is now putting the finishing touches on a few sites slated to reopen in early 2009.

Renovations to Ingleside’s Aptos Playground, including work on its restrooms, will be fully complete in February. That same month, North Beach Pool is slated to reopen, along with the newly built rhino and hippo enclosure at the San Francisco Zoo.

St. Mary’s Playground, in Bernal Heights, is scheduled to reopen in April with new playground equipment, drinking fountains, landscaping, irrigation and a restroom.

— Beth Winegarner

City’s suggestions
Among the findings of a city report on Recreation and Park facilities:

– The number of recreation centers closed for renovation has dropped from nine to one in the past two years
– Recreation staff has declined from 200 in July 2004 to nearly 175 in September 2008
– The department does not maintain official public hours of operation for its recreation facilities
– The department has no systematic means of monitoring facility closures, due to lack of staff

Recommendations:

– Rec and Park should develop a method for tracking and monitoring staff attendance, staffing shortfalls and unscheduled facility closures — possibly using 311
– The department should look at extending hours at recreation centers while compressing hours at smaller clubhouses

Source: Controller’s Office

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 31, 2008 at 4:50 AM

Truancy enforcement ramps up

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
December 24, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — Parents of kids who skip class are again in the crosshairs, as the San Francisco district attorney gears up to prosecute a new batch of caretakers of truants.

The stepped-up enforcement efforts are one piece of a large patchwork of programs aimed at ending chronic truancy in schools.

District Attorney Kamala Harris’ office prosecuted parents in six families last summer, after their kids missed more than 50 days of classes. In all cases, the children have since returned to school, although one had to be placed in foster care to make it happen, Harris told The Examiner.

The parents were given court-mandated instructions to keep their children in school and get support for the problems contributing to truancy, or face increased penalties, including a $2,500 fine or up to a year in jail.

Since then, another half dozen or so families have failed to keep their kids in school; the District Attorney’s Office is examining their situations closely.

“More cases have been referred to us by the school district, and we’re prepared to prosecute them,” Harris said.

Her attorneys also have mediated more than 1,000 truancy cases before they reached the prosecution stage.

Still, curbing truancy is a vexing problem.

Last school year, 5,449 San Francisco public school students missed more than 10 days of school. Of those, 2,472 were elementary school students, according to data from the San Francisco Unified School District. A student is considered habitually truant when they miss 10 days; a chronically truant student is one who misses more than 20 days.

Those numbers have increased slightly from 5,427 in 2005-06 and 5,417 in 2006-07. District officials could not produce new data for the 2008-09 school year.

Harris launched a $20,000 ad campaign in September urging the public to call a hot line if they see kids playing hooky from school.

The hot line received just seven calls that month and two in October, according to figures provided by the school district.

Not every call is going to that hot line, according to Harris.

“Since our ad campaign, we’ve had many anonymous calls and we’re referring those calls to the (school) district,” she said. “People are paying more attention, and that’s good.”

Meanwhile, the school district launched a Web-based program this year called School Loop, which allows parents to see everything from their child’s homework assignments to their unexcused absences, according to Superintendent Carlos Garcia.

“Our anti-truancy programs were designed not to punish people, but to find out why they’re missing school,” he said. “Sometimes it’s as simple as arranging child care. But the D.A.’s effort helps. We can say, ‘If you keep doing this, you’ll wind up in the [District Attorney’s] Office.’”

City officials have floated a number of truancy-fighting ideas, from boosting police intervention to enacting a daytime curfew, but none have moved forward.

One city-funded program, the Bayview-based Center for Academic Re-Entry and Empowerment, is helping hard-core truants transition back into public schools, according to Director Ethan Ramson.

Since its opening at the Bayview YMCA in February, the center has worked with more than 60 high-school-age kids, 24 of whom have returned to public school or obtained their diploma equivalent.

Leader urging adults to tell kids to quit playing hooky
One of San Francisco’s newest techniques for battling truancy could be a very old-fashioned idea: adults telling hooky-playing kids to get back to school.

Ethan Ramson, who directs the Bayview YMCA-based Center for Academic Re-Entry and Empowerment, plans to launch a new program next year in which Bayview district merchants and other adults talk to truant kids, or ask police to do it.

“When I was growing up, if I didn’t go to school, my mom knew about it by the time I got home,” Ramson said. “We want to get the elders involved. We’ve gotten away from that.”

One reason for that decline is that adults increasingly fear juveniles, according to William Siffermann, chief of the San Francisco Juvenile Probation Department.

Adults often feel that wayward teens are dangerous, and possibly carrying weapons, according to Siffermann. And with good reason: Many juvenile crimes, from graffiti to burglaries, are committed when youths would otherwise be in school, he said.

Left alone, many truants lead violent, and often short, lives, according to District Attorney Kamala Harris. Nearly 75 percent of truants ultimately drop out. Since 2003, 94 percent of San Francisco’s homicide victims under 25 were high school dropouts, according to Harris’ Office.

“There will be those in public safety who say, “Don’t engage these kids because it may provoke an attack,’” Siffermann said. “But I’m supportive of us elevating vigilance. As adults, we shouldn’t be afraid.”

District attorney promoting truancy prosecutions statewide
San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris has prosecuted a half-dozen parents whose children are chronically truant, and plans to prosecute more. Now, she’s urging other district attorneys across California to take similar measures to keep kids in school.

Should The City or school district hire truancy officers to round kids up and send them back to school? “I think this is an issue that requires many sectors and agencies to be involved. One of the ways we distribute resources is we say, ‘This is a priority.’ But that doesn’t mean we hire more people.

“My focus has been on truancy in elementary and middle school. And when you talk about [those students], we’re not necessarily seeing them on the streets. When you’re talking about a 7-year-old, likely they’re staying at home.”

Should The City pursue a daytime curfew and take legal action against kids who are not in school? “I’d want to know what age group are we targeting, what would be the penalty and method of enforcement and all of that. I can’t speak to that idea until I get some details.”

Other cities have used a variety of methods for curbing truancy; which models have you studied, and which ones do you think could work in San Francisco? “We’ve been working with California District Attorneys Association, sharing our method with other counties. In terms of best practices in other counties, they involve very much what we’ve been doing: a court model.

“Some jurisdictions have a truancy court. Some may prosecute high school kids, but we chose not to focus on that — we’ve been prosecuting parents, not children. I’m not saying prosecuting kids is not the way to go, but I’ve got limited resources. It’s certainly not because we shouldn’t be thinking about high school kids who don’t go to school. But bad habits start early. The kid who is chronically truant in elementary and middle school will be a dropout in high school.”

Are there any demographic trends among the cases you handle? “There’s no question there’s a correlation between the population you see as truant; it’s the same as a high school dropout, and who will occupy the County Jail and state prison. We’re seeing is a disproportionately high number of African American and Latino youth who are part of that whole trajectory.”

Is it something cultural or are there institutional frameworks in the schools that work against these kids? “It’s not that certain cultures are not interested in education. There’s a connection to poverty, access, support, child care for younger children, transportation issues.

“I always concede that it is legitimate to have a very long conversation about how we can improve public education in our state. But one thing we know for sure is regardless of what you think is the quality of education, if they’re not in school, they’re not getting an education at all.”

What will the District Attorney’s Office continue to do with respect to truants? “Part of what I hope to do is continue to raise the profile of truancy as one of the direct causes of victimization and crime, and one of the first indicators of who will be a perpetrator of crime. The links are direct between a child going without an education and an adult who is sucking up all our resources in the state prison. People think we should pay attention to kids because they’re cute and cuddly. I pay attention because in 16 years they’re going to be committing crimes against us if we don’t.”

Staying in school
Anti-truancy efforts in San Francisco schools:

Center for Academic Re-Entry and Empowerment (C.A.R.E) at Bayview-Hunters Point YMCA: Serves 20 truant youths at a time, offering basic English, math and other courses to help students prepare to return to public school. Launched in March, it has already served 65 kids.

District Attorney’s Office truancy court: Has prosecuted parents in a half-dozen severe cases, and is looking at prosecuting another batch. Also reviews and provides case management for 1,000 other families, primarily of elementary and middle school students.

Stay in School Coalition: Operated by the San Francisco Unified School District, it includes many city agencies and community-based organizations that work to provide support for truants.

Attendance liaisons: School-based staff who keep track of students missing school regularly, reporting them both to parents and to the Stay in School Coalition. Serious cases are referred to the District Attorney’s Office.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 24, 2008 at 4:55 AM

Wounds from tiger attack linger

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
December 18, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s been almost one year since the Christmas Day tiger mauling that killed a San Jose teenager, and while the event inspired safety improvements in zoos nationwide, the San Francisco Zoo has yet to recover from the attack.

The event, and the riveting details later revealed, drew worldwide attention. A 250-pound Siberian tiger named Tatiana escaped her enclosure Christmas Day 2008, prowled zoo grounds, and ultimately killed 17-year-old Carlos Sousa Jr. and injured two friends.

For months afterward, the story played out in the media as rumors circulated that the young men had provoked the tiger, and investigations showed flaws both in Tatiana’s enclosure and zoo employees’ response.

One year later, the scars remain: The zoo will be closed this Christmas to commemorate the attack.

In response to the incident, the zoo spent $1.6 million in bond money to raise walls surrounding the tiger enclosure from 12½ feet to the 16 feet 4 inches recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The financial hit was followed by declining ticket sales, leaving the zoo with a nearly $2 million budget shortfall.

“We have a lot of work to do — it’s a serious financial challenge,” Mayor Gavin Newsom told The Examiner. “This incident happened at a time when we saw visitorship on the rise and there was momentum for another bond.”

The incident also served as a cautionary tale for other zoos.

It prompted Oakland to spend $30,000 to boost fence heights — formerly 13 feet in some spots — around its own big-cat enclosures, according to Oakland Zoo Executive Director Joel Parrot, who called the incident a “shockwave” that went through the profession.

Zoos across the country made similar upgrades, according to Zoos and Aquariums Association spokesman Steve Feldman.

At Pennsylvania’s Erie Zoo, improvements to the tiger enclosure were already under way, but the San Francisco incident prompted it to add a few extra inches to new fences, according to President Scott Mitchell.

San Diego Zoo’s big-cat fences already met the Zoos and Aquariums Association standard, but the park added up to 1 foot in some places just to be on the safe side, said spokeswoman Christine Simmons.

Inspiring those changes “feels like a double-edged sword,” said Bob Jenkins, the San Francisco Zoo’s vice president of government and external affairs.

The zoo is expected to deliver a follow-up response by the end of 2008 to the Zoos and Aquariums Association’s investigation into the tiger attack, he said, adding that there will also likely be another inspection in early 2009.

“We hope it makes the industry much stronger, but we wish it could have been done in a different way,” Jenkins said.

The zoo’s fiscal quagmire has also resulted in a hiring freeze that left several top positions — including directors of operations, development, animal care and human resources — vacant, according to Carl Friedman, The City’s director of Animal Care and Control.

Friedman was asked by the mayor last summer to work with the zoo, after the institution’s executive director resigned. Friedman is scheduled to retire at the end of January, however. Additionally, Interim Director Tanya Peterson recently announced she plans to stay in the interim role “indefinitely,” and doesn’t intend to take the job permanently.

Zoo officials say they’ve been working closely with Newsom on new initiatives to attract more visitors, though details were not divulged.

For now, the zoo remains cautious about acquiring new animals, said Peterson. However, it’s banking on the idea that several new births last spring could draw patrons back, spokeswoman Lora LaMarca said.

The zoo will also unveil a new rhinoceros enclosure in early 2009 — directly across from the refurbished big-cat exhibit.

Patron cited for scaling wall into rhino enclosure
Even a bevy of improvements embarked upon at the zoo following last December’s tiger attack couldn’t stop a patron from scaling the outer wall of the rhino enclosure earlier this month, officials said.

A male patron climbed the outer fence of the rhino exhibit Dec. 8.

Zoo patrons reported the break-in to zoo authorities before the man managed to breach the inner enclosure, according to Bob Jenkins, vice president of government and external affairs at the zoo.

“He was either trying to pet the rhino or have his picture taken with the rhino,” Jenkins said.

Although the patron and two female friends vanished before zoo security arrived, staff members detained them elsewhere in the park, and the man was cited for disturbing animals, a misdemeanor, according to officers at San Francisco’s Taraval police station, which serves the zoo.

After Carlos Sousa Jr. was killed by an escaped tiger last winter, the zoo posted signs throughout the park asking patrons to report anything they see that looks suspicious or dangerous, and that’s exactly what happened Dec. 8, according to Carl Friedman, director of The City’s Animal Care and Control.

It’s unlikely the zoo will make any safety-related changes to the rhino exhibit following the incident, according to Jenkins.

“If somebody wants to get over the fence, they will,” he said. “The only way to avoid it is to have no visitors at the zoo.”

Legal fight for zoo, city just beginning
As the first anniversary of a deadly Christmas Day tiger mauling at the San Francisco Zoo draws near, the legal fight is just beginning.

Carlos and Marilza Sousa, parents of victim Carlos Sousa Jr., expect to file their formal lawsuit against the zoo and The City by Dec. 27, attorney Michael Cardoza confirmed this month. The Sousas filed a wrongful-death claim in May that the City Attorney’s Office rejected in June.

The family will file for unspecified damages in the death of their son. They are weighing whether to request a memorial be erected in honor of their son, similar to the memorial to Tatiana, the massive Siberian tiger who killed him, Cardoza said.

The zoo would seriously consider installing a memorial to Sousa if asked, according to Interim Director Tanya Peterson.

Meanwhile, brothers Paul and Kulbir Dhaliwal filed a formal lawsuit in federal court in November against the zoo and The City.

The suit, filed by attorney Mark Geragos, claims the Dhaliwals “suffered and will continue to suffer from the attack, sustaining physical and emotional injuries.” They “are permanently scarred by this attack” and they will “continue to incur medical expenses and loss of earnings.” The lawsuit demands liability for their injuries.

Initial hearings in the case are scheduled for February.

As the anniversary of their son’s death approaches, the Sousa family’s pain remains fresh, according to Cardoza.

“With the season upon us, they’re reliving it now,” Cardoza said. “I had one of them on the phone crying, saying, ‘This is what Christmas is going to be like for the rest of my life.’”

Lawsuit filed by handler still in mediation
A lawsuit against the San Francisco Zoo from the handler who was attacked in 2006 while feeding the Siberian tiger that later killed a teenager last Christmas Day could head to trial Jan. 20.

Mediations between handler Lori Komejan, her attorneys and representatives of the zoo have been ongoing this fall, according to John Smith, one of Komejan’s attorneys. Smith would not disclose the nature of those discussions, but said a trial date is scheduled next month in San Francisco Superior Court.

Komejan was attacked during a public feeding of the zoo’s tigers Dec. 22, 2006. She had just finished giving tiger Tatiana her meal when a piece of meat fell into a drain trough outside the enclosure, according to court documents filed in October 2007.

As Komejan reached to fetch the meat, Tatiana reached under the bars of her cage and grabbed Komejan’s right arm, then her left arm, pulling both through the bars, according to court documents.

Komejan remains an employee of the zoo, although she has been off duty on workers’ compensation since the incident, according to spokeswoman Lora LaMarca.

An investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health found that the lion house, where lions and tigers are fed, contained a defective cage in which big cats could reach under and through the bars, according to court documents. The attack and investigation prompted changes in the lion house.

Public feedings of the big cats were canceled for several months after Komejan’s attack, but resumed in summer 2007, according to LaMarca. They were abandoned once more after Tatiana fatally mauled Carlos Sousa Jr. last Christmas Day.

Officials are still weighing whether to bring them back, LaMarca said.

Timeline of a tragedy
Events leading up to and following last Christmas Day’s fatal tiger mauling at the San Francisco Zoo.

Dec. 22, 2006: Zoo’s Siberian tiger, Tatiana, mauls handler Lori Komejan, severely injuring both her forearms.
Dec. 25, 2007: Tatiana escapes enclosure and attacks Carlos Sousa Jr., 17, and brothers Paul and Kulbir Dhaliwal, then 19 and 23, killing Sousa and injuring the others. Police shoot and kill the tiger.
Dec. 28, 2007: Zoo officials admit tiger enclosure’s walls are shorter than the national standard.
Jan. 3: Zoo reopens to public and unveils memorial to Tatiana. Big-cat enclosure remains closed. Female polar bear nearly escapes her enclosure.
Jan. 8: Dhaliwal brothers file a legal claim against the zoo and The City. The same day, San Leandro police arrest Paul Dhaliwal for allegedly shoplifting at a Target store in San Leandro.
March 18: The Association of Zoos and Aquariums releases a report finding that the zoo was understaffed and unprepared for the Christmas Day attack.
May 14: Carlos Sousa Jr.’s parents, Carlos and Marilza, file a wrongful-death claim against the zoo and The City.
July 17: Hearing on legislation introduced by Supervisor Chris Daly to turn the zoo into an animal rescue center.
Sept. 16: Board of Supervisors vetoes Daly’s legislation.
Nov. 12: Dhaliwals file a lawsuit in federal court against the zoo and The City, accusing city officials of negligence in the attack and of violating their civil rights during the investigation.
Dec. 25: Zoo will close to commemorate tiger attack.
Dec. 27: Deadline for Sousa family to file lawsuit.

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 18, 2008 at 4:44 AM

The City may be running the risk of wildfires

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
December 10, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — Neglect has left nearly a dozen wooded areas in The City thick with underbrush and aging trees, and that has some worried that the region is ripe for a devastating wildfire.

San Francisco is home to several large, wooded areas — from the Presidio to the north to McLaren Park to the south. Many are dangerously overgrown. Those conditions, coupled with decreasing rainfall, unseasonably hot days and a lack of controlled burns in the area — an effective fire-prevention technique — could add up to disaster.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has deemed 11 of The City’s park areas “moderate fire hazard severity zones,” ranked only below “very high” and “high” on the state’s severity scale.

“We have fires every year,” said Franco Mancini, who lives near the 318-acre McLaren Park, which is sandwiched between the Excelsior and Visitacion Valley neighborhoods. “They’re kind of big fires. Every year, the grasslands are ignited in some way or another.”

San Francisco firefighters have extinguished 34 grass or brush fires since Jan. 1, according to Fire Department spokeswoman Lt. Mindy Talmadge. The tally does not count the October fire on Angel Island that consumed 380 acres of grassland — nearly half its vegetation.

Although such larger fires are rare in The City, they can happen “if all the forces of nature are lined up,” said Assistant Deputy Chief Tom Saragusa of the Fire Department.

Those forces include a string of three or four hot days, coupled with San Francisco’s notorious winds and hilly topography, he said.

Ironically, those are the same winds and topography that lead firefighters to say it’s too dangerous to perform controlled burns within city limits, Talmadge said. Experts say controlled burns are an effective fire-prevention tool, since they clear out accumulated growth that could allow wildfires to quickly escalate out of control.

The majority of fire-danger zones identified by state officials are large park properties owned and managed by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department. Without controlled burns to manage dry grasses and undergrowth, it’s up to Rec and Park staff to trim potential fire fuel on those properties.

For example, the 70-acre Glen Canyon Park has been identified by the state as a moderate fire hazard. The wooded area, like many other city parks, contains homeless encampments and is bordered by homes.

“If required, we cut the grass, but it’s really labor intensive and not usually done,” Rec and Park spokesman Elton Pon said, referring to Glen Canyon’s vegetation management.

Trees — including the notoriously flammable eucalyptus — are only trimmed in cases of imminent threat and hazard, due to staff and funding shortfalls, according to Pon.

Rec and Park does spend $10,000 per year to hire a herd of goats to munch dry foliage in Glen Canyon and Twin Peaks, Pon said.
However, Rec and Park officials could not quantify how much they spend managing vegetation in The City’s other wildland parks, or how often that work is done.

A $185 million neighborhood park bond approved by voters in February includes $5 million for trail restoration and $4 million for tree management in city-owned parks. Some of those funds could help reduce the fire-fuel load in parks tagged as hazards, said Jim Lazarus, vice chair of the Recreation and Park Commission.

“My opinion is that money should target areas that border developed properties,” Lazarus said.

The fire risk is also heightened when temperatures spike.

San Francisco had three three-day stretches of hot temperatures this year, according to Bob Benjamin, forecaster with the National Weather Service. Thermometers spiked above 85 degrees for three days in June, another three in September and three more in November.

Such heat waves are not unusual in The City, Benjamin said.

At the same time, annual rainfall has declined.

Between 2004 and 2006, The City saw annual rainfall totals of more than 30 inches. But since 2006, it has dropped to less than 18 inches per year — similar to statewide conditions that prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a drought in June.

Meanwhile, some locals have taken it into their own hands to clear brush and trails, both for access and for fire safety.

A group calling itself the Mount Sutro Stewards has spent the past two years doing just that on the slopes of the dense, 61-acre eucalyptus forest immediately behind UC San Francisco’s Parnassus campus.

“Mount Sutro has a history of fire documented back to the 1800s,” said group member Craig Dawson. “There have been some recently, but when you consider the proximity of homes, the hospital and student housing, we’ve been fortunate there hasn’t been anything major.”

City not fighting fire with fire
Fire experts know you should fight fire with fire, but San Francisco hasn’t used controlled burns to quell dangerous areas in many years.

Despite dozens of small grass fires each year — and one big blaze this year that torched half of Angel Island — local fire officials say it’s just too dangerous to attempt controlled burns in The City’s open-space parks.

“We have done it in the past, but with our topography, the hills and the wind, the Fire Department has decided it’s just too risky,” Lt. Mindy Talmadge, spokeswoman for the Fire Department said.

Controlled, or prescribed, burns are intentionally set by a fire agency to pre-empt a wildfire by reducing flammable brush to cinders.

Such burns are common among other fire agencies in the Bay Area, including San Mateo and Marin counties.

“Fire is natural to the environment and it’s good for thinning out the vegetation in a natural way,” said Ernylee Chamlee, chief of wildland fire prevention engineering for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. “I think more agencies would like to do them more, but they’re not easy to do.”

Controlled burns are more challenging when there are homes nearby, according to Chamlee, and that’s the case with every open space in The City.

After years of annual fires in McLaren Park, nearby resident Franco Mancini approached the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to discuss the possibility of controlled burns in The City.

“They said it was fine, just get concurrence from your local fire department,” he said.

The Fire Department, however, has persisted in saying no.

That leaves the process of using fire to reduce fuel loads in local parks to the whims of Mother Nature and accidental blazes, according to Stan Kaufman, who lives on Mount Davidson.

“Fire management has devolved to the drunk teenage high schoolers who are out there shooting off fireworks,” he said. “Nobody does it responsibly, so it winds up happening irresponsibly.” — Beth Winegarner

Major blazes waiting to happen?
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has deemed 11 of San Francisco’s park areas “moderate fire hazard severity zones.”

– Glen Canyon
– The Presidio
– Maritime National Historic Park
– Interior Park Belt
– Lincoln Golf Course and Lands End
– Mount Davidson
– Stern Grove
– McLaren Park
– Candlestick Point
– Park lands east and south of Lake Merced
– Mount Sutro

Source: Cal Fire

Preventive measures
Tips to make your home safer from wildfires:

Design/Construction:
– Use ignition-resistant construction for roof, assemblies, gutters, vents, desks, exterior walls, exterior windows
– Install residential sprinklers
– Make sure that electric service lines, fuse boxes and circuit breaker panels are installed and maintained per code

Roof:
– Remove dead leaves and needles
– Remove hanging dead branches and keep them 10 feet from chimney

Landscape:
– Create a defensible space around home of 100 feet, which is required by law
– Remove all flammable vegetation within 30 feet immediately surrounding home, including woodpiles
– Create a reduced-fuel zone in the remaining 70 feet or to property line
– Use care operating equipment such as lawnmowers when clearing vegetation; one small spark may start a fire

Source: Cal Fire

Written by Beth Winegarner

December 10, 2008 at 4:32 AM

Posted in Parks, San Francisco

New swan soon to rule the roost at Palace of Fine Arts

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Beth Winegarner
Examiner Staff Writer
November 9, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO — A new male swan at the Palace of Fine Arts may be getting picked on right now by the three female swans he lives with, but caretakers expect him to be ruling the roost within a short amount of time.

The Palace of Fine Arts’ male swan, named Wednesday, mysteriously vanished on Christmas Day last year, and police have not yet solved the swan-napping — they never developed any solid leads, nor did they determine whether the thief was human or animal, according to San Francisco Police spokeswoman Sgt. Lyn Tomioka.

Hagerty called the SFPD on Dec. 25 when she went to the lake for the swans’ afternoon feeding and found Wednesday gone, the female swans agitated and a pile of downy white feathers left behind.

“Their wings were clipped, so flying away was not a possibility,” said Tomioka. “Police inspected the scene, but we were unable to determine if the swan was stolen.” No suspects were found.

There are an unknown number of coyotes living in the Presidio that have occasionally been spotted in and around the Palace of Fine Arts, according to Deb Campbell, a spokeswoman for Animal Care and Control.

Hagerty maintains that a human took the swan, because an attack by a coyote or dog would have left plenty of evidence behind.
“I’ve been on the wrong end of a swan. When they get hurt, they bleed like you wouldn’t believe,” Hagerty said.

Wednesday’s disappearance left the lake’s three female swans — 18-year-old Friday and her 12-year-old daughter Blanche and 3-year-old daughter Monday — without a guardian, according to swan caretaker Gayle Hagerty.

Hagerty and fellow caretaker Judy Wilkes pooled their money and bought a new 1-year-old male swan in October, naming him Maybeck, after Palace of Fine Arts architect Bernard Maybeck.

“He’s one of the most magnificent swans I have ever seen,” Hagerty said. “At first he was shy. He fainted when we first put him in the lake. But he’ll be king of the land in another six months.”

For now, Maybeck is taking a pecking from the ladies, who chase him around the lake mercilessly. But as the yearling grows, he’ll take over as head of the roost, and within two years he’ll be able to fertilize eggs and rejuvenate the flock, Hagerty said.

This story originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

Written by Beth Winegarner

November 9, 2008 at 11:18 PM