Vandalism, inappropriate use and trespassing at Brook Haven a concern for administrators, district

By Katherine Minkiewicz-Martine, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, March 25, 2022

The Sebastopol Union School District is considering erecting an eight-foot perimeter fence at the Brook Haven School following vandalism, trespassing and irresponsible facility use issues. (Photo courtesy Brook Haven School)

Following recent vandalism incidents, trespassing and inappropriate use of school facilities at the Brook Haven School in Sebastopol, the Sebastopol Union School District (SUSD) is sending a letter to district families reminding people of the rules and expectations for use of campus facilities and urging community members to be responsible when using the new artificial turf and other campus amenities.

District officials said that they hope people can learn to respect the facilities and use them appropriately because the alternative to solving ongoing use issues is to install an eight-foot perimeter fence around campus, which would limit the use of facilities to individuals who have prior authorization from district and school personnel.

According to the letter, which was penned by the SUSD school board of trustees, the campus has been visited after school hours by people who use the campus for purposes including parties, fires, encampments, fireworks, trespassing into off-limit construction areas and skateboarding.

“Being an open campus in the middle of a neighborhood adjacent to Libby Park is (we’re) a neighborhood school, but it also comes with potential costs. Because we’re an open campus it is accessible to anybody at any time of day,” said Brook Haven Principal Sara Gramm.

Gramm and facility director Brent Ono said the campus has also had tagging-related vandalism and damaged windows.

“From a board perspective, we’re always balancing how to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our kids and community use (of the school facilities). What’s been happening at Brook Haven as is true in many community spaces, is people hanging out at times especially after hours and using things in a very inappropriate way,” said SUSD Board President Deb Drehmel.

She said sometimes beer bottles and other inappropriate paraphernalia are found on campus. Additionally, sometimes older kids come onto campus and exhibit inappropriate behavior that’s a safety risk to them and the school grounds.

“We have a security system that Brent Ono monitors and one time he saw kids with roman candles having a little firefight and, like Sara said, it is an open campus so we have people in broad daylight walking through as well. We have concerns about that, but also safety, safety of the facility and we have a responsibility to maintain the facility,” said SUSD Superintendent Linda Irving.

In a group interview with SoCoNews, they said there’s also been issues where older kids and young adults have parties in the back of the school and build makeshift fireplaces.

Drehmel said there are a lot of people using the campus and the vast majority are using it appropriately, but the things that occur that are inappropriate are thoughtless. She said there have been other incidents that are not intentionally malicious but create maintenance and safety issues.

“We have this brand new field and there’s a lot of rules associated with the field,” Irving said. “We can’t have dog poop out there, for example, or urine either. We can’t have fire near there and certain footwear. With the concerns that we currently have, now we add an expensive (artificial) turf field and we’re concerned (for) the public’s investment.”

The group said another issue is that dogs have been coming onto the turf field despite a sign being posted that says ‘no dogs allowed.’

Drehmel said, “perhaps by opening the field fully and not having any gates, people would be less apt to have their pets on the field because it is no longer closed,” and doesn’t look like an enclosed dog park.

They said they’re hoping that if they have the new turf and facilities open over the next few months users will be able to respect the quality of the field and use it responsibly.

“That’s the hard part because we have neighbors who we find on the field with their dogs and say, ‘but I clean up after my dog.’ That’s not necessarily the case for other people who are out there with their dog. It’s not picking and choosing which rules apply to you, it’s making sure that it’s for the overall greater good,” Gramm said.

Turf field rules include no dogs allowed; only turf shoes or molded cleats are allowed on the field; no food or drink, clear water only on the field; and bicycles, rollerblades and skates are not allowed.

Regarding issues with trespassers and homelessness on campus, Irving said, “We have had trespassers in the daytime that are not necessarily appropriate, coming on campus, digging through the trash, looking for recycling.”

She said at times they have found an individuals’ belongings on campus and the individual would come back in the evening to gather their belongings. In one instance, a couple was found on campus. Gramm said they haven’t had the issue of people sleeping on campus for a while now.

She said the campus issues and vandalism issues are mostly occurring after school campus patrol hours and that the perpetrators aren’t Brook Haven students but older kids, young adults, adults and people from out of the area.

Gramm said the behavior isn’t anything new but that the misuse of school facilities has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Adding to the situation, she said there also seems to be a lot of confusion around what’s school grounds and what’s part of the nearby public park.

“Because the park is right there’s confusion as to what’s school property versus public park property and that happens throughout the day — like our basketball parks where families are at the park and they come over to the basketball court not realizing that it’s the school campus which is closed to the public during the school day,” Gramm said.

The tennis courts are also part of the school campus and can be used by the public after school hours. The same goes for the basketball courts and the track and turf field. During the school day the physical education classes use those facilities, which is why they are only open to public use after school hours.

Fence considerations

One of the solutions that is being considered is erecting a perimeter fence around the campus and monitoring who uses the facilities, however, this is a last resort option for the school board who would like to keep it open for community members.

“For us as a board, it is a very challenging conversation to have as to how to ensure that the facilities are safe for the kids, well maintained and available for public use. Sebastopol needs to have more spaces for our kids and families and we see ourselves as part of that so the board is very conflicted over how to proceed,” Drehmel said.

She said if facility users respected the grounds and understood the rules then the board would not need to go down the perimeter fence path. Installing a fence would be costly for the district — current estimates are that an eight-foot fence with a no-climb mesh would cost between $600,000 and $1 million.

“It is more expensive than you would think because of the ADA (requirements) and the size of the fencing that would need to be done and emergency exits. We met with (Fire Chief Bill Braga) and he told us what the parameters would be, so that expanded the size of the fence and if we wanted to have some sort of key system that’s an additional cost and the breakaway fencing doors are also an additional cost,” Irving said. “We would like it if people could be responsible and then we could all enjoy the community use of the facility, but as you go around Sonoma County school sites you see these perimeter fences more and more and we’re probably one of the few open campuses still around. We’d like to stay that way but we might not be able to if people aren’t using the site responsibly.”

Drehmel said the board very much wants to reach out to the community to see whether or not an education campaign on proper use of the field and facilities will make a difference.

“Our current thinking is that we will open things up most likely through the summer and assess the situation at that point,” Drehmel said.

This article was produced by SoCoNews. See more news at soconews.org