Parents sound alarm about fire safety

firealarm.jpgParents and teachers at Tilden Elementary School, which serves a large number of disabled children, showed up to the board meeting tonight to ask why the school still doesn’t have a working fire alarm or intercom system.

“The potential for disaster with tragic consequences is far too great,” said Kathleen Boos, a teacher at Tilden.

Boos said teachers have to run up and down, knocking on doors, whenever there’s a drill or a crisis. The phones often don’t work, she said, and the school was recently encouraged to buy Walkie-talkies as a temporary solution.

District staff said they had hired an architect to draw up plans for a fire system in response to the Williams Act complaint the school had filed. They also said fire watchers have been monitoring the campus at night.

“It is a pressing issue, and we are working on a solution for this school,” said state administrator Vincent Matthews.

Kathy Rieves, a Peralta Elementary School parent, recalled the March 2007 fire that destroyed much of her child’s school.

“C’mon now. Look what happened to us! What would have happened if the 250 children who attend Peralta Elementary School were there when somebody burned our school?” she asked. “A fire can happen while those babies are in school!”

Are there similar safety concerns at other Oakland schools?

image from Shermee’s Web site at flickr.com/creativecommons

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Sue

    This just boggles the mind! How can the district decide to move a high school because it’s in a building that *might* not comply with earthquake standards, and leave open an elementary school that has a non-functional fire alarm system? That can’t possibly be legal?

    Older son was a student at Tilden in CH SDC many, many years ago. We thought he was safe there. He certainly was well-educated, although several of his best spec. ed. teachers left the district when the state take-over happened, so I can’t say how good the CH programs are now. Still, it hits way too close to home learning that a school we considered a good one has fallen so far.

  • spedteacher

    Unfortunately, Tilden has a long history of inadequate and unsafe facilities. It is reminiscent of decades past when special ed students were housed in old portables on the playground and given classrooms inferior to the rest of the school. Tilden has the distinction of all of its classrooms being special education and unsafe. The model for the school is excellent, but why do the facilities have to be so poor? The district keeps sidestepping the Williams Complaints and the latest (teachers being unaware of an unsafe neighborhood situation) was students being dismissed during what should have been a school-wide lockdown. There needs to be more than walkie-talkies to communicate for fire alarms and lockdowns.

  • Turner

    I’m surprised that we are even talking about this. There are rules set forth by the State Fire Marshal that govern fire systems. This sounds very much like an illegal situation that has gone on for far too long.

  • Sharon

    Something that has concerned me over the years, which also factors into the state of fire un-preparedness at some school sites, is not having sufficient numbers of vigilant adults who are monitoring hallway activity.

    On and off during the years I was active at Bret Harte, no sooner would the fire extinguishers be installed and every thing was looking copacetic when wandering students would take the opportunity to vandalize the newly acquired equipment. It was not always promptly replaced.

    I specify one school but I am sure this is going on across the district. More campus security in OUSD secondary schools, please.

  • Nextset

    It wouldn’t surprise me if the bathrooms are filthy also.

    If you run a bad school, the problems are never in just one area. The whole place reeks. The campus is a obvious reflection of the social status of the children who go there.

    And I don’t like it at all. How do we fix this? Maybe break up the school district in to 8 smaller districts? Replace the school board with an elected school administrator so we don’t have a committee responsible for everything? Inject more autocracy into the management?

  • Jodi

    For four years, teachers have been demanding a fire alarm and nothing has happened.

    I have been teaching at Tilden for five years. We teach some of the youngest, most vulnerable students in the district and the severe lack of a proper facility is astounding to me. Tilden is a fantastic school with dedicated and knowledgeable staff and extra programs to meet our students’ individual needs. We need a school facility that meets their needs as well.

    When I started teaching at Tilden, we had about 90 students. We now serve over 300 general and special education students. Four years ago John Swett, an adjacent elementary school, closed and the rapidly growing Tilden School expanded onto that campus. No effort was made to ensure that the alarm system on the two campuses were connected to one another. The alarm system works in the old John Swett part of the campus but the original Tilden portables are not connected to that system. And, despite an assertion made to the contrary by a district official at Wednesday’s board meeting, the ancient alarms in original Tilden part of the campus are no longer functional at all in most of the portables. The problem is not only that they are not connected. The problem is that there are now no working fire alarms in most of the old portables.

    I teach in a portable on the original Tilden part of the campus. Every time the fire alarm rings on the old John Swett part of the campus, I have to look at my staff, stop what we are doing, try to quiet my classroom of eight students, all diagnosed with autism, and we ask one other “Was that the fire alarm?” Most of the time, we have to go outside just to see if the fire alarm is actually ringing. Then, once we gather our kids to go outside, we have to knock on doors to make sure the teachers in the surrounding portables heard the fire alarm as well.

    If we have an emergency situation, (and the phone system is working at that particular moment in time) our secretary has to call each classroom individually. In most emergencies, there is not time for that.

    As for the walkie talkies, please know that we tried that already as a “temporary” solution at the beginning of this year. With money designated for instructional purposes, we purchased expensive walkie talkies for every teacher in the portables. However, after about three months, they no longer worked. Even when they work, it is often hard to get a signal. There are up to five staff members in each portable, yet we only have one walkie talkie per portable. Walkie Talkies are not a solution.

    This is unacceptable. We have no fire alarm. We have no public announcement system. And we haven’t had one for the past four years. How is that possible in a public school?

  • Cranky Teacher

    Listen to the deafening silence after Jodi’s damning post (and the posting time was a nice touch!)

    No state administrators want to rush on here and explain this?

    And the principal?

    Four YEARS?


    At my school, we held our first and only emergency drill five weeks before the end of the year. I have been informed of no lockdown policies, although we tend to keep our doors locked around here anyway . . . less disruptions from hall walkers.

  • Sharon

    This story is really sad and Cranky’s post reveals a lot.

    Does it seem to everyone else that loosey goosey fire, earthquake, and lockdown drills are likely to be the norm in too many schools? It does to me.

    Discussing and structuring them can’t possibly be rocket science. It really wouldn’t be hard for the school’s leadership to 1. at the beginning of the year, communicate the official policy to parents and teachers about the required number and manner of drills 2. announce to the community when one has been accomplished “with X more to go.” This approach would establish transparency and assist with accountability. Of course, the fog in people’s brains would have to be cleared out first.

    I would wager that the district is really scrambling to get Tilden taken care of (accountability) since this story has been made more visible by the Tribune (transparency).

  • Kathleen

    In response to Turner:

    Our understanding is that the Fire Marshall did not list the lack of a working fire alarm in many of the portables at Tilden as a violation. Could it be possible that it is NOT illegal to have students in portables without fire alarm systems?

  • localmom6

    Something needs to be done about the serious facility issues at Tilden, and soon. It is so unfair to place these hard-working, under-resourced special education teachers in classrooms without safety basics. Imagine a real emergency, where each teacher would have to safely evacuate and comfort 8+ children who cannot communicate and/or walk independently. How much worse would it be if they can’t get early warning about it?

    If Tilden School doesn’t strike the district as a place where extra support is necessary, I don’t know what school would. And these teachers aren’t asking for extra, just the basics.

  • Kathleen

    We filed an appeal with Jack O’Connell’s Office regarding the fire alam and communication issue and others at Tilden. Yesterday we were notified that the appeal was denied. There was a half-inch pile of documents included with the denial report. There were only two sentences that mattered though:

    “The appeal has been denied because the OUSD has taken reasonable steps to remedy those issues that fall within the William criteria. Although other issues do meet the William criteria, the OUSD continues in their effort to resolve thse issues.”

  • Kathleen

    Please second paragraph of previous comment to read:

    “The appeal has been denied because the OUSD has taken reasonable steps to remedy those issues that fall within the Williams criteria. Although other issues do not meet the Williams criteria, the OUSD continues in their efforts to resolve these issues.”


  • John

    Cranky Teacher:

    Perhaps you were around when Carol Quan was superintendent in the 1990’s. A new principal at Highland Elementary invited Channel 2 to view the facility atrocities at that school (I recorded & still have the Channel 2 special report). Among other things the only outside girls bathroom had been closed due to a minor & inexpensive door repair need. Stairs were deteriorating with nails sticking out, etc. etc.

    As it turned out such issues had been the subject of a previous grand jury report yet STILL not resolved. Because of the media spot light brought to bear long over due repairs began the day after the first of three reports on OUSD incompetence & misguided priorities.

    The Hispanic principal (a personal acquaintance) who reported the problem to the media was black listed (no pun intended) down town, demoted, and eventually fired.

    What we’re seeing at Tilden is nothing more than dejavu all over again in the OUSD. The principal should call in the media, lose her job and live with the expectation of a glorious reward in the here after (OUSD). Amen

  • Steve Asztalos

    At a meeting on May 22nd, 2008 at OUSD offices the District committed to investing up to $400k to bring Tilden’s communication and fire systems up to a minimal standard. The State Administrator even took part in the discussion. Tim White (OUSD) told those assembled (20 or so teachers, OUSD staff and parents) that this work would be substantially complete by Oct. This work was to be performed regardless of the outcome of the Williams Act process.

    Upon start of the new school year it has not been possible to get any information of the status of this work, though indications are that it has not been completed. The new principal is either unwilling or incapable of helping make this determination. Instead, it appears that her sole function is to ensure an orderly shutdown of the campus be the end of the current school year.

  • Steve Asztalos

    An update on yesterday’s posting…Last evening I spoke at length with a (unnamed for now) member of the OUSD staff who was present at the May 22nd meeting. She repeatedly reassured me that the commitments made at that meeting were still in place and, further, that the improvements to the fire alarm and communication systems were on track to be finished in October. She further promised to get a team assembled to update Tilden parents and teachers on the status of the upgrades.

    I expressed my appreciation but added that the already tenuous lines of communication were further diminished by the fact that the new principal was either not aware or unable to communicate this information to the community. I myself had taken the principal’s desire to move on as a statement that the promised improvements would not be made. Personally I draw a sharp distinction between critical fire and communication improvements committed to by the District and resolution of the remainder of the Williams Act issues. Regardless of the status of Tilden for the ’09 school year it is imperative that the former be resolved in a satisfactory manner. In my opinion if the decision to keep Tilden open is made then the unresolved Williams Act issues would take greater prominence.

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