The Crime Wave Comes to Campus 

A recent burglary at Oakland's Fremont High was just the latest in a long series of thefts at area high schools.

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Although his department doesn't have incident totals, he said frequent burglaries have occurred in schools throughout the district. While OUSD officials acknowledge the problem, no one seems to have a handle on the actual number of annual incidents and material loss figures. When asked, Michel hesitated to even provide a ballpark figure, referring to the number as "inordinate."

Incident reports, if even filed at all, go directly to OPD, which then organizes the data by location but does not compile school theft reports in any exclusive format. While the OPD's online crime statistics reveal the number of incidents within the immediate vicinity of each OUSD school, records only go as far back as ninety days, and no aggregate district figure is available. Chuck Johnston, an OPD crime analyst, says he can find school site totals, but that would involve a formal data request, which takes at least a month.

Michel said schools also are prey to thieves in search of raw materials like glass, copper, and metals that are commonly stripped from buildings and air-conditioning units. He estimates that this school year alone so far, break-ins have cost the district well over half a million dollars.

He's not surprised by the lack of response from OPD officers, who are often more focused on homicides and other violent crimes. "I think they're so inundated with calls, and naturally when someone said can you check on an alarm in the school, it's not a huge priority. They don't have enough people."

Without the OPD standing by, Michel said his department has conducted some undercover and night-surveillance operations at different school sites and is in the process of getting monitoring equipment and hiring private security units to patrol campuses. But thus far, these efforts "are just putting a dent in it, not really solving the problem."

"It's easy pickings," he adds. "They really don't steal, they just kind of go shopping."

After the January incident, Schmookler marched down to district headquarters and demanded that his school's damaged facilities be repaired immediately and further secured. The following day, carpenters boarded up the windows of the portables, leaving students in the classrooms with no outside light. Throughout this school year, Schmookler and other campus principals have repeatedly requested a night watchman to patrol the grounds and call police directly during a break-in. They figure the $35,000 in expenses to pay for the guard is far less than the total annual losses and repair costs. Schmookler notes that he has the money to pay for it, but the district has yet to deliver, due in part to a contract dispute with the custodians' union, who say the job would override their jurisdiction.

Daniel Hurst, the principal of Architecture Academy, another repeatedly robbed school on the Fremont campus, agrees that a night guard is the only way to curb crime. He estimates that his school easily loses at least $50,000 a year in stolen equipment and related facilities damage. It's so predictable, he said, that he implicitly considers the loss when examining the school's finances each year, what he refers to as "the cost of doing school in this environment."

Right before Christmas break and then again on Christmas day, Hurst's school lost a total of seven computers. He notes the determination of the thieves, who have gone to great lengths in their attempts, including breaking down a wall and crawling under a portable to cut through the floorboards with a chainsaw. When security is tightened in one part of the building, he adds, they'll just find somewhere else to break into.

"You know what, you're not going to be able to keep them out," Hurst said. "If given enough time, they'll get in. The only thing that can prevent it is a human being [telling the police] there is someone breaking in." He said police often don't come because they think it's a false alarm. But if there was an actual witness who called, he's confident they'd arrive. "If at that point they failed to show," he adds, "that would be a huge problem."

Media High Case Manager Eric DuBois is less forgiving. The son of a former OPD officer, he acknowledges that the force is understaffed and has to prioritize life and death situations over school theft. Yet he finds it hard to understand why no one comes when alarms go off multiple times over the course of a weekend, as was the case on Memorial Day. It'd be pretty unusual, he notes, for a false security alarm to be set off at 2 a.m.

"How can we expect crime to be solved if you have to wait for three different alarms to get police out?" he asks, noting the need for more officers. "There are too many break-ins for them to assume false alarms. That's not an excuse."

This has been a rough year at Fremont. Aside from the break-ins, there have been six gun-related incidents on and around campus just since December, including a body found down the street and a teacher who was held up at gunpoint in the early morning at 7:30 a.m. as he walked from car to classroom. In another recent incident, someone came on campus with a gun and the school underwent a lockdown, in which teachers were ordered to lock their doors and not let any students in or out of class. But in some of the portable classrooms, the loudspeaker system was broken and those teachers never heard the announcement.

Among them was Lisa Shafer, who teaches journalism in one of the Media High portables whose windows recently got boarded up. "Break-ins to a school in this neighborhood are especially tragic," she said. "It's just heartbreaking."

Morale among teachers has been affected, she said, partly by the break-ins but just as much by the generally decrepit state of many of the facilities that makes them so easy to break into. Her now-windowless portable was built forty years ago as a temporary structure and is falling apart. She said it takes forever to get anything repaired by the district; the rotting floor got fixed only when she suggested to them that they might have a lawsuit on their hands if someone fell through it.

"I'm disgusted and outraged that students sit in a classroom that's moldy and has rotting floors and no sunlight," she said. "It's pathetic that this is the solution. ... What is this saying to students?"

Guillermina Ramirez, a Media High senior, has experienced her fair share of school break-ins, and said it definitely affects her academic ability, especially as senior project deadlines approach with a lack of available computers. But she doesn't think the break-ins will ever really stop here.

"I think it's the way it works," she said. "Around this community we're used to it."


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