Friday, June 13, 2014

Richmond Demonstration Over "Bomb Trains" That Haul Crude Oil

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

RICHMOND -- About 60 demonstrators on Saturday May 31 held signs and made speeches against "bomb trains" of highly toxic and flammable crude oil now stopping at the Kinder Morgan rail yard here, where the oil is loaded onto trucks and taken to area refineries. 

The demonstrators, some carrying signs with the word "Boom!" on them, are angry that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in February issued Kinder Morgan a permit to transfer crude oil from rail cars to trucks without a public hearing. Activists filed a lawsuit to stop it. 

The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco Superior Court by Communities for a Better Environment, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, asks for a preliminary injunction against further crude oil operations at Kinder Morgan and suspension of the air district permit, pending a full review under the California Environmental Quality Act. A hearing is set for July 18. 

No injuries or arrests were reported at the demonstration. 

AndrĂ©s Soto, an organizer for Communities for a Better Environment, which helped organize the demonstration, said he lives about a quarter of a mile away from the train tracks in Benicia. 

"What's really scary is on the other side of these 'bomb trains' are schools and houses," Soto said. 

Jim Neu, of Martinez, joined the demonstration Saturday, carrying a sign that said "Martinez Says No to Bakken Bomb Trains." The sign is referring to oil taken from the Bakken region of North Dakota that moves on trains to refineries around the country. 

"We live right downtown near the tracks," Neu said. "The sad thing is that people who don't live near tracks are kind of oblivious to the threat." 

The issue came to the forefront last summer when an unattended freight train carrying Bakken crude derailed, caught fire and killed 47 people in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, a few miles over the border from Maine. 

A spokeswoman for the Tesoro Golden Eagle refinery outside Martinez confirmed earlier this spring that its facility receives between 5,000 and 10,000 barrels per day of Bakken crude. That is about two to four trains per month, and it is received through a third-party facility, the spokeswoman, Tina Barbee, said. She did not identify that facility. 

A spokesman for Kinder Morgan reached in Houston on Saturday declined to comment. A spokeswoman for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District in San Francisco also declined to comment, citing the lawsuit. 

At the demonstration in Richmond on Saturday, Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction, which helped organize it, said it's simple: "Crude oil should stay in the ground." 

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Oakland School Guard Caught on Video Beating Student in Wheelchair Who Was Handcuffed

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND -- An Oakland High School security guard was caught on videotape last week beating a handcuffed student in a wheelchair and has now been charged with felony corporal injury to a child. 

The 17-year-old victim has cerebral palsy and cannot use his legs, according to the criminal complaint filed May 21 by the Alameda County District Attorney. 

A surveillance video captured the May 19 beating of Francisco Martinez, which happened about 9 a.m., according to Oakland schools spokesman Troy Flint. 

The security officer, identified in court documents as Marchell Ernest Mitchell is scheduled for a pretrial hearing on June 16. Mitchell has pleaded not guilty. 

The school district fired Mitchell immediately after the incident, Flint said. He was hired by the district in November, and Flint said "there were no convictions, no arrests, and no red flags in his file." 

"Clearly," Flint said, "the district was wrong here, and there is no excuse." 

According to court documents and a letter sent to parents by Oakland High Principal Matin Abdel-Qawi, the incident began when Mitchell and another guard were urging Martinez to go to class. After Mitchell handcuffed Martinez to his wheelchair, Martinez turned around and spat on the security guard who suddenly slapped the student several times with great force and threw him onto the floor facedown. 

Martinez was transported to a hospital and treated for his injuries. 

"He slapped me so hard two times that he knocked me out of my chair," Martinez told KTVU. "I was handcuffed, I had no way to defend myself but by my mouth. He tells me I hope you don't walk for another two or three weeks." 

Flint said the school district did a background check on Mitchell before he was hired in November of last year and there were no convictions, no arrests "and no red flags in his file." 

According to Abdel-Qawi's letter, two school security guards were urging students to go to class as they lingered in the hallway. She said Martinez continued to linger. The security guard began wheeling him to class, and Martinez attempted to slap away his hands and that is when he was handcuffed, the letter said. 

Flint said school district officials are investigating the actions of a second female guard in the incident but have drawn no conclusions. 

Oakland schools Superintendent Gary Yee said he visited Martinez at his home after the incident. 

"I think the actions we saw in the video were really appalling and should never happen under any circumstances," Yee said Friday. "I went to his house and personally expressed my concern for what happened. He appreciated it. He shared his perspective with us." 

Yee said the district offered Martinez alternate placement in another school but he said he wanted to remain at Oakland High. He did not attend classes Friday. 

Some students at the school expressed support for Mitchell on Friday, wearing signs around their necks at school that said: "Spitting is a crime. You provoked this." 

School officials spoke out only against the beating. 

"We consider this behavior completely unacceptable, harmful to our school and community and traumatic to our students and families," Abdel-Qawi wrote in the letter. "I'm shocked and deeply hurt by this behavior and apologize on behalf of the staff at Oakland High." 

Flint said Mitchell and the student have a history of exchanging words with each other. Another incident occurred between the two about a month ago, Flint said, though he did not reveal details of that exchange. 

"The thing we're doing here is being careful to analyze (what happened), but we're also looking at a larger culture between student and staff," Flint said. "Incidents bubble over, and they're the result of systemic problems. There's no tolerance for this. We're looking for better ways to intervene during conflicts. Adults should be able to de-escalate flammable situations." 

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Oakland Voters to Decide Property Tax for High Schools

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND -- A $120 a year property tax benefiting city high schools will go on the November ballot following a vote by the school board Wednesday night. 

The Oakland College and Career Readiness For All Fund, if approved by two-thirds of voters, will raise between $10 million and $12 million a year in attempt to increase the 66 percent graduation rate. 

The school board will vote on final language for the measure at its June 25 meeting. If approved, 90 percent of the money would go directly to high schools that apply for money to establish linked learning programs -- small learning groups that link students' study of a particular area with real-world job experience. Ten percent of the money would go toward administration. 

A poll of likely voters conducted for the school board in April showed the measure is likely to pass. 

Andy Nelson, deputy policy director for East Bay Asian Youth Center, said the school district needs the program. 

"We don't take this notion to go to the voters lightly," Nelson said during the meeting. "We do urge the district to put this on the ballot. We want wall-to-wall linked learning so every student can succeed." 

Interim Superintendent Gary Yee said the school district already has invested $2 million to $3 million a year building an infrastructure for linked learning programs. 

An April survey of 552 Oakland voters showed the measure gets a 73 percent pass if voters are asked for $120 a year. 

The last time the school district asked for an increase in taxes to increase teacher pay in 2008, it lost by 450 votes, partly because the teachers union did not support it. 

Teachers are not behind this measure either, said Oakland Education Association President Trish Gorham. The fact that charter high schools will get some of the money is an issue for teachers. 

"While we cannot commit to the parcel tax now, we will stay engaged," Gorham said. "Charter school involvement is a concern for many of our members. Implementation of this kind of program depends on teachers at the schools, and if they are not fully engaged and involved, it doesn't matter how much money you raise, it won't work." 

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Oakland, Richmond Students Sue California Over Lost Classroom Time

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND -- When his economics teacher went on maternity leave last fall, Eric Flood said, a procession of Fremont High substitute teachers filled the days with easy, irrelevant and uninspiring work. It was so boring, many students stopped going to the first-period class altogether. 

When his teacher returned, she expected them to be caught up with the work. Many of them ended up with D and F grades, Flood said. 

Flood, 17, is one of 11 student plaintiffs across the state in a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday against the state Department of Education. 

The suit says the students have been denied equal access to teaching time compared with students who attend schools in more well-to-do neighborhoods. 

The suit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court, cites a loss of valuable learning time due to a number of systemic failures, including a shortage of teachers and mental health counselors, and the failure to have class schedules ready at the beginning of the year. 

"We didn't even have to do the work. The substitute just marked us as being there even if we weren't," Flood said Thursday. "There was no point in going to that class anyway, so we just stayed home." 

Lawyers involved in the suit say they hope it will get the state to devise a way of tracking how many hours and minutes of instruction students actually get at school, so schools will be forced to provide a minimum standard for learning time. Currently, schools simply report whether a student was there sometime between the start and end of the day. 

Northern California plaintiffs in the lawsuit include two students at Castlemont High School and two at Fremont High School in Oakland and one at Nystrom Elementary School in Richmond. The other named plaintiffs are at four Southern California schools. 

Also named as a defendant is the state superintendent of education, Tom Torlakson, who is running for re-election. 

Attorneys from Public Counsel, an advocacy firm, the ACLU of Southern California and other lawyers are handling the case on behalf of the students. 

The ACLU of Southern California was part of a similar class action brought against the state and settled in 2004 that contended the state failed to provide public school students with equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent school facilities and qualified teachers. 

"We interviewed teachers and administrators in low-income schools and identified several factors that cause students to lose days and weeks of learning time," said Michael Soller, spokesman for Public Counsel, about the suit filed Thursday. 

The suit alleges the schools' failure to have class schedules ready at the start of the year takes away from learning time. 

A lack of mental health counselors in schools where kids are victims of violence and where shots are fired near schools takes away teaching time when teachers become ad hoc counselors, the suit says. 

And at schools where there are not enough teachers, substitutes do a poor job, and students are assigned to help out in school offices instead of being in class learning, the suit alleges. 

It also says both Castlemont and Fremont high schools have a difficult time just getting students inside their classrooms. 

At Castlemont, "Each morning, more than half of the student body arrives late to school and misses the beginning of first period. In many first period classes, there are typically fewer than five students present in a 25-student class when the bell rings to start the school day, and in some classes, there is not a single student present for the first few minutes of class. Many students miss first period altogether," the suit alleges. 

"All of those contribute to a really challenging teaching environment and leads to higher turnover and higher vacancies," which cuts down on teaching time, said Public Counsel staff attorney Kathryn Eidmann. "We really don't see this as a case of schools needing more money. We see it as identifying a need at these schools." 

Oakland school district spokesman Troy Flint said the district has been trying to turn around Castlemont and Fremont high schools for a number of years with little success. 

"We are grateful for any action that is going to produce more resources we can use to improve outcomes at schools in the district," Flint said. 

Torlakson and state board of education President Michael Kirst issued a statement Thursday in response to the suit, calling it "costly and unnecessary." They said the new shift toward giving school districts more control over how they spend state money, called the Local Control Funding Formula, is "the best way to improve student achievement and meet the needs of our schools." 

Danielle Dixon, a special-education teacher at Castlemont for the past two years, said she is quitting her job because a lack of teachers makes it too stressful to stay. 

"Mental health is one of the greatest needs I see," Dixon said. "My students on a daily basis know students who have been shot. I have homeless students who don't have enough to eat and are still expected to take the tests and earn the grades to graduate, but they don't have the support to do that. We need an investment of qualified and certified psychiatrists and counselors. We need wraparound services, which we don't have right now." 

She said the school has vacancies for special-education assistants that are not filled for an entire year. 

"There should be people whose job it is to bring those assistants to us," Dixon said. 

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Berkeley Pair Celebrate 30 Years On Cable Access with Kid Poetry Program

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

BERKELEY -- Riding a bus to Oakland one day in 1984, Sally Baker watched as two young African-American boys tried in vain to read a newspaper, something the two 10-year-olds should have been able to do fairly easily. 

"I thought, that was a tragedy," Baker recalls. "They were having trouble reading some very simple words." 

That vignette on the bus turned out to be the inspiration for "Wee Poets," a weekly television show now in its 30th year. The show, taped at Berkeley Community Media, now airs several times a week on cable access stations from Hercules to Fremont. 

"I thought I could start a television show for kids who write poetry during school time, and they could come and read it on my TV show," said Baker, of Berkeley. 

Sally Baker, right and Adnan Touma

On the show, elementary and middle school students from Alameda and Contra Costa counties read poetry they create in after-school classes. Some sing and dance. A second group of older kids, ages 13 to 19, set up and tear down the stage and lights, film the segment and edit the tape. In addition to poetry reading, Baker finds a guest to interview each week, who talks about his or her career. Guests range from doctors and lawyers to kite designers. 

Some of the shows from years past are on YouTube. In one of them from three years ago, a 10-year-old girl talks about her older sister going away to college. It is called "My Sister is Leaving." 

I am sitting on my bed crying 

My sister is packing her bags 

I don't want you to leave 

We fight, we argue, but inside I hope you know I love you 

When you leave, who will I talk to? 

You haven't left yet, but I missed you as if you have 

I am very proud of you but please, please don't leave 

Baker, as the show host, estimates she has interviewed 34,000 young poets since the show started. 

She partnered with Adnan Touma, who teaches the older kids how to film and produce a television show. The two have been working together ever since. 

Touma, who has a speech disability and is a retired architectural engineer from San Pablo, said he shows the studio team firsthand how someone can overcome obstacles and get a good career. 

"I feel proud that I can share with the children and teenagers the difficulties I overcame despite my speech disability," Touma said. "I tell them to pursue their goals and let nothing stop them from achieving." 

Thirty years have come and gone, but Baker said she will never forget one young guest who went on the air despite having been horribly disfigured. 

"That child's face was so burned, you couldn't tell if she was a boy or a girl," Baker said. 

Baker said the girl's father brought her in and said he wanted to build her self-esteem. But the student studio crew balked. They didn't want to film her, and they worried that putting such an injured young person on television would be inappropriate. 

"I told the kids 'we have to put this child on the show,'" Baker recalls. "So I went into the bathroom and I said 'God, show me what to do,' then I came out and said to the camera man, who was 13, 'you have to focus on this child, you have to look at her and pretend she has no burns at all and treat her like all the other kids.'" 

After the show, Baker said she knew it was the right thing because she got lots of phone calls thanking her for putting the girl on. 

"I'll never forget that child," Baker said. "She touched me. She wanted to be a ballerina or a skater. She was like any other child at heart, and maybe she was testing me." 

Baker, who retired from her UC Berkeley job as an administrative assistant in 1991, and Touma have been to the White House during the Reagan administration to be recognized for their work and have done traveling shows in France and Jamaica. 

"And every year we have an anniversary show," Baker said. "I have some guests come back and tell how they started out on my show when they were 8 or 9 years old. It's a great feeling seeing them. Sometimes when I walk down the street in Berkeley grown-ups will say 'Hey, do you remember me, I was on your show when I was 9 and I still have the videotape.'" 

Baker said she has found something in her life that she really likes to do and she couldn't think of stopping. 

"Each child is like a flower, they bloom, then I see them 20 years later and they have developed as an adult," Baker said. "We still have thousands of kids to reach." 

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Teachers Quit, Parents Withhold Money Over Morality Clause in Contract

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND -- Catholic school teachers under the Diocese of Oakland are quitting and parents are withholding donations over new faith and morals contract language teachers at 54 schools must sign that references their private lives. 

Diocese of Oakland spokesman Mike Brown said Wednesday three teachers at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland have quit over the new contract language. 

The new contract language, authored by Diocese of Oakland Bishop Michael Barber, that says that in their "personal and professional lives" teachers must "promote behavior in conformity with the teaching of the Roman Catholic faith in matters of faith and morals." 

Parents, teachers and students upset with the new contract language worry teachers could be fired for being gay, having sex outside marriage or even for using birth control. 

Kathleen Purcell, a history teacher at Bishop O'Dowd and director of the school's career partnership program, got her contract for next year and signed it but crossed out the two new paragraphs that reference the faith and morals clause. Her contract was not accepted and she refused to back down. 

"I could have taken back what I did and said I could go along, but I can't do that," Purcell, 62, said. "My life is about advancing civil rights." 

Purcell said last year she delivered a eulogy for a gay friend at her funeral that was videotaped and put on the Internet. The way she see's her teacher contract, that would not be allowed and she could be fired. 

Annette Tumolo, a gay parent of an O'Dowd junior said she is considering pulling her daughter out of the school and she may not write the $5,000 donation check she pledged to the school on top of the $15,000 a year tuition. 

"We were attracted to the school because of its inclusive and diverse nature," Tumolo said. "We want a moratorium on this new wording because the environment and the culture of the school will be damaged by it." 

Barber responded to the uproar over his new contract language in a question and answer forum in the Diocese of Oakland newspaper, "The Catholic Voice," last week. 

"I have heard it said that we are targeting teachers who might be gay," Barber said. "This is manifestly untrue. The Catholic Church treats all people, regardless of sexual orientation, as children of God. Sexual orientation does not lessen the dignity, worth or rights of any person. Pope Francis said, 'Who am I to judge?' I say the same." 

He also said he has no "interest in monitoring or prosecuting personal private lives." 

If that is the case, Tumolo said Barber should just take the language out of the contract. 

"Good intentions are not ephemeral," Tumolo said. "He could leave tomorrow but the language could still be in the contracts for someone else to interpret differently." 

Eva Marlatt, director of academic support at O'Dowd, did not sign her contract because it represents "an unworkable dilemma forced upon us: the moral dilemma between our loyalty to a wonderful (and wonderfully diverse) school community and the demands of our personal sense of integrity and our dedication to social justice and civil rights." 

She said the new language was introduced by the diocese with no dialogue on April 15 and teachers had until May 1 to sign. 

Brown said he hopes parents read what the bishop has said in "The Catholic Voice" before they make decisions on donations or enrollment for their kids. 

He also had a message for teachers: "Wait to make that dramatic decision about your job until you are able to attend a proposed meeting that probably will happen next week with the Bishop at O'Dowd. Let's not give up yet." 

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Oakland Teacher Wins $25,000 Fishman Prize

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
Bay Area News Group

OAKLAND -- By mid-May, most fourth-grade teachers are happy they've almost made it through the school year and a two-month break is around the corner. 

On Monday, 29 year-old Laura Strait learned she has a lot more to look forward to over the summer, $25,000 in cash to be exact, from a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based nonprofit that promotes good teaching. 

Strait, who teaches at the East Oakland charter school Aspire ERES Academy, got the Fishman Prize from TNTP (formerly known as The New Teacher Project) in front of her students with her mother at her side. 

Strait, who said she combines her background in general teaching and special education to provide a specialized learning experience for each student, was one of four teachers who received the prize out of about 820 applicants nationwide. 

"Her students do incredibly well, and they've made incredible gains," said Aspire Principal Emily Murphy, who nominated Strait for the award. "She is an amazing teacher, and she just wants to get better and better and better." 

After being nominated, Strait, who has been teaching eight years, submitted classroom data on test scores for all subjects and submitted an essay as part of the competition. 

"I said that with my background in special education and general teaching, I'm able to differentiate students who need more help and get to know each one really well and give them individualized attention," Strait said. 

She was observed in the classroom by TNTP staff, who arrived unannounced, underwent a video observation of her classroom and participated in panel interviews in New York. 

Aleka Calsoyas, a partner at TNTP who was on hand Monday to present the award, piled on the praise. 

"She is very connected to the class as a whole and to individual students, that was clear to me," Calsoyas said. "The class is engaged, and she is constantly pushing them to dig deeper." 

So what will a fourth-grade teacher do with $25,000 and a whole summer ahead of her? 

"I've never had this kind of money in my life, so I definitely will go on a vacation," Strait said. "I've also got a lot of student loans to pay off." 

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