Santa Barbara News Press

UNDER PRESSURE: Students Under the Gun to Pass High School Exit Exam

The summer after a kid’s senior year is supposed to be an exciting time of transition.

But for the 60 seniors in Santa Barbara who haven’t passed the high school exit exam, the dog days have been stress-filled, a cram session to prepare for their last chance at a timely diploma.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, many of the roughly 40,000 seniors across California who haven’t passed will take the test again. That’s 9 percent of the graduating class of 2006.

Among them is San Marcos High School student Peter Coronado. Having already passed the English half of the test, Peter is gearing up for the math portion on Wednesday and finding himself in an awkward position: His father is urging him to stop coming to school and start working for him.

“He just told me to pack up my stuff,” Peter, 17, said.

For the first time in state history, passing the test is a must to earn a diploma.

Like the other students, if Peter doesn’t pass, he faces some tough choices. He can go to work without a diploma, take adult education classes at Santa Barbara City College, pick up a GED or sign up for a fifth year of high school.

To prepare, he has been taking what may be the most urgent summer school course of his life.

“It’s big-time stress,” said Peter, an easygoing former football lineman who sports an L.A. ball cap, rings and earrings. “It just kind of holds you back from the real world.”

Peter’s father never finished high school, but, unlike most dropouts, he’s doing just fine. His business, Coronado Trucking, affords him financial security; he just bought a home in Palmdale. Now, he wants to teach Peter the secrets of the trade.

As an aspiring mechanic, Peter’s all for it, but he still wants that diploma. For him, it is more about meeting a personal goal than getting ahead in life.

And, while his employment future looks promising, Peter wants to be the first man in his family to graduate high school. His older brother didn’t make it, either.

Peter is excruciatingly close. He put in his requisite 60 hours of community service, coaching T-ball. The former San Marcos football player earned all B’s and C’s — coach wouldn’t stand for any D’s. Last month, he proudly walked the stage in cap and gown.

“They were both really happy,” he said of his father and brother. “It just felt good.”

But the diploma won’t come in the mail until he passes that three-hour test.

“I can’t sit in one place for hours,” he said. “I get impatient, try to guess. That’s when I mess up. I get all stressed.”

For most people, a high school diploma literally puts money in their pocket.

The average American high school dropout earns $19,300 annually, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. Those with just a high school diploma and no post-secondary education average $29,800. Holders of two-year associate’s degrees take in $36,600; four-year bachelor’s degrees, $50,300; advanced degrees, $65,000.

Compared to the rest of the state, Santa Barbara’s success rate is twice the statewide average. The 60 local students, most of whom attend one of the district’s three main high schools, represent about 4 percent of this years’ graduating class.

The vast majority of students who haven’t passed the test — 44 of 60 — are considered English learners; most of them are native Spanish speakers.

Whatever their reason for failing the test, students who have completed all other graduation requirements have one last chance to pass the exam the summer after their senior year. State law requires schools to help students who are not showing progress toward passing the test, perhaps offering additional courses, summer school and tutoring.

Students may take the exam until they pass. Those who don’t pass can take the GED, a nationally recognized high school equivalency exam for adults. They can also earn a diploma through adult education.

The next round of exams comes about a week after the release of the results of the last one, taken in mid-May. In Santa Barbara, just eight of the 68 seniors tested that month passed, said Davis Hayden, the district’s director of research and technology.

He wasn’t surprised by the poor passing rate among the remaining seniors from Santa Barbara, San Marcos and Dos Pueblos high schools, as well as a handful of smaller alternative high schools.

“We’re getting down to the kids who have the hardest time,” he said.

Santa Barbara News Press

“The Day that Changed the Course of My Life”

Until the spring of 2004, Julie Delk’s life felt pretty normal.

She was a sophomore at San Marcos High, earning passable grades, helping with the student yearbook and working at a movie theater for extra spending cash.

But since then, Julie, who graduated from San Marcos on Thursday, has been to hell and back.

In March of 2004 she administered CPR to her father as he lay dying. Seven months later, when Julie was a junior, she found the body of her mother, who had committed suicide.


For several months afterward, Julie, the youngest of the couple’s three children, lived alone in the family’s condominium, going to school at San Marcos during the day and working full time at night.

“I just wanted to keep myself busy so I wouldn’t have to think about it,” she said.

After about six months, the home sold.

Knowing Julie had no place to go in Santa Barbara, the families of several school district employees — including Superintendent Brian Sarvis and his wife, Ann — took her under their wing.

Julie graduated with a GPA of about 3.6, but her SAT score wasn’t so hot.

Yet she earned a first-year full ride at UC Berkeley, where she plans to study business. The grants she received from the university and nonprofit groups such as the Santa Barbara Scholarship Foundation total roughly $26,000 — enough for a full year, living expenses included. Next year she must re-apply.

Julie is frank about why the school accepted her application.

“My essay got me in,” she said, sitting on an outdoor bench on the quiet campus of San Marcos about a week before graduation.

It begins like this:

“March 27, 2004, was the day that changed the course of my life.”


Julie was in her room, blow-drying her hair. Her mom and dad were returning from the hospital. Her father, Charlie Delk, had had complications from a recent bypass surgery. A minute or so after their return, her mother shrieked, “Julie, come!”

Julie hurried out of her room and saw her father lying on the floor, sweating and fading in and out of consciousness. She and her mother were in shock, unsure what to do.

Her father said, “It’s OK,” but then stopped breathing.

Julie and her mother phoned 911, and Julie administered CPR to her 76-year-old father. The paramedics arrived shortly after and rushed him to the hospital. But by the next morning, the man who retired from his architecture job to raise Julie while her mother went back to college was brain dead. Her mother instructed doctors to let him go.

Julie was devastated. “He was my stabilizer and constant companion,” she wrote. But it is the death of her mother, Sonja Delk, that Julie still cannot discuss.

After her father’s death, she knew it would be difficult to live alone with her mother, who suffered from severe depression. But Julie didn’t understand the depth of her troubles.

For instance, her mother’s busy college schedule wasn’t the only reason she was often unavailable when Julie was growing up. It was also because doctors had diagnosed her as bipolar.

“She was in another realm.”

As late as 2003-2004, Ms. Delk was in and out of mental institutions.

“My father hid these things from me to try to protect me,” Julie wrote. “As a result, my mother and I did not have the closest typical relationship.”

Already strained, their relationship worsened.

The death of Julie’s father accelerated her mother’s mental decline. She became increasingly obsessed with aging and sank to new lows after her 54th birthday. Then, one week later, came the worst day of Julie’s life: Nov. 5, 2004.

The teen came home from work, and noticed something amiss — her mother wasn’t in the room in which she tended to be at that time of day. Julie started walking up the stairs and found her mother dead on a couch. She had shot herself.

When Julie was in her darkest hours, educators rallied around her. Teacher Laura Willbanks and her husband, Michael, signed the papers necessary to become her legal guardians. The Sarvises — Mrs. Sarvis works at San Marcos High School as a guidance counselor — let her stay at their home. Eventually, she moved in with Alejandra Aranovich, a former San Marcos psychologist who has since taken a job at La Cuesta alternative school. (Ms. Aranovich’s son is also a friend of one of Julie’s older brothers.)

Ms. Aranovich was in her office when Mrs. Sarvis called to tell the story of a student in distress — Julie. Mrs. Sarvis was hoping Ms. Aranovich would refer the student to resources that could help.

Eventually Mrs. Sarvis mentioned Julie’s name.

“I started crying,” Ms. Aranovich said. “I had to leave work for a while.”

She went out to her car and called her son, who attended NYU with Julie’s brother. She regained her composure and returned to the office that day. She decided she wanted to take Julie in.

Mrs. Sarvis said it wasn’t Julie’s dire circumstances alone that led so many to come to her aid. It was also her personality, which Mrs. Sarvis described as magnetic and endearingly dry.

“She’s a funny, funny young lady,” Mrs. Sarvis said.

For a while, Julie came into Mrs. Sarvis’ office almost every day, but not just for counseling. She had decided she wanted to become a better student.

“Before this happened, she was probably a B-minus student,” Mrs. Sarvis said. “She came to me and said, ‘I had this terrible year. What can I do?’ ”

Mrs. Sarvis encouraged her to take more rigorous courses.

“She really did enjoy being with a more excelled group as far as students went,” she said. “Her parents weren’t really her motivators. They had had many children; she was the youngest. She really did take that push on by herself.” (Julie’s father had six other children from a previous marriage.)

Now, life is more or less back to normal. Julie has many good friends and her bedroom is stocked so full of DVDs that Ms. Aranovich jokes that it resembles a video store. She owns at least 200 movies, her favorite being a German drama called “The Princess and the Warrior.”

When Julie turned 18 in October, the Sarvises held a birthday party for her at their house. In attendance were Julie’s brothers, who came from Los Angeles and Sacramento, and her girlfriends from school. In all, 18 people sat around the table. When Julie’s friends were departing, she walked out to the car to see them off. Mrs. Sarvis — whose six children are all grown — was surprised to see Julie return to the house; she wanted to finish the night with the adults.

“She has made an imprint on our hearts,” Mrs. Sarvis said. “It’s a lifelong relationship. It’s not something that’s just going to go away with high school.”

Santa Barbara News Press

‘Why aren’t you in school?’

To find out why homeless kids are missing classes, county education liaison Ernie Rodriguez takes on the role of social worker, surrogate parent, therapist and, sometimes, detective

Ernie Rodriguez knocks on the door of an old RV parked near Old Town Goleta. He’s checking up on a fourth-grade girl who, by the county’s definition, is homeless, and who didn’t show up to La Patera Elementary School on this day.

Mr. Rodriguez’s job is making sure homeless kids attend school. It’s a tricky proposition, and the 35-year-old Santa Barbara native often finds himself in the role of social worker, surrogate parent, therapist and, sometimes, detective.

His rounds take him to homeless shelters, run-down motels and squalid apartments shared by multiple families, but this day he steps into the RV parked in a quiet residential neighborhood. The inside is tidy, but full of supplies such as canned food, toiletries and a spare tire.

Elizabeth is a fourth-grader who, by the county's definition, is homeless. On the heels of three evictions, she and her mother, Marina, live in an RV. Photos: MIKE ELIASON
Elizabeth is a fourth-grader who, by the county's definition, is homeless. On the heels of three evictions, she and her mother, Marina, live in an RV. Photos: MIKE ELIASON

It turns out the girl, Elizabeth, is sick with a head cold. The family has been evicted from three apartments in the past year, and must move the RV every three days.

On this particular afternoon, the mother, Marina, an undocumented immigrant, needs to run some errands, but because the RV doesn’t run very well her only option is a bicycle. Her husband, a gardener, is at work. Mr. Rodriguez offers to give Elizabeth a lift a few miles away to the house of a trusted friend, who can watch her. As Marina pedals down the street, a neighbor jogs out to the street to intercept her.

“When are you going to move that RV?” he asks.

“Tomorrow,” she says, before turning the corner.

For Mr. Rodriguez, it’s just another day on the job.

David is a seventh-grader whose homeless father, Lee Haralson, is dying at a hospice. David, who also sleeps at the hospice, often stays up late at night playing videogames and is tired for school the next day. 'It's harder for me to learn when I got my dad on my mind,' he says. The pair also used to live in an RV.
David is a seventh-grader whose homeless father, Lee Haralson, is dying at a hospice. David, who also sleeps at the hospice, often stays up late at night playing videogames and is tired for school the next day. 'It's harder for me to learn when I got my dad on my mind,' he says. The pair also used to live in an RV.

He is a “school liaison” for the Santa Barbara County Education Office homeless education department, which serves about 1,050 children countywide. By necessity, he knows many families intimately in his bid to keep kids in the classroom. He’s been doing this for seven years, and colleagues say he’s good. But he’s not certain he will have a job next year.

After a 20-year run, the agency is facing the possibility of losing between 30 percent and 60 percent of its $300,000 annual budget. The county’s homeless program relies largely on a $180,000 federal grant that lasts three years. In mid-June, officials will learn how much money – if any – they’ll receive for the next round.

In addition to bankrolling Mr. Rodriguez’s $63,000 salary, the program covers an after-school program for homeless children at shelters such as Transition House in downtown Santa Barbara.

But for Mr. Rodriguez – who grew up wanting to be a police detective – the day-to-day, case-by-case struggles are more than enough to keep his mind off budgetary concerns. A day spent on the job with Mr. Rodriguez recently illustrated his many challenges.

To find out why homeless kids are missing classes, county education liaison Ernie Rodriguez takes on the role of social worker, surrogate parent, therapist and, sometimes, detective.
To find out why homeless kids are missing classes, county education liaison Ernie Rodriguez takes on the role of social worker, surrogate parent, therapist and, sometimes, detective.


In addition to dealing with the girl in the RV, Mr. Rodriguez visited a filthy, two-bedroom apartment housing 13 people to visit a boy who is missing too many high school classes.

The teenager is a sophomore at a local alternative high school for students unsuccessful in traditional settings. The tiny place near downtown is so stuffed with people that the kitchen’s pantry has been converted into a bedroom.

The teen’s father is currently not living in the home. His mother doesn’t know how to read or write in English or Spanish. Still, somehow, she recently landed a job as a hotel maid. The family is so poor Mr. Rodriguez sometimes brings them food – nonperishable items such as peanut butter, rice, juice, chips, tomatoes and beans.

Mr. Rodriguez pulled his Honda Accord into the driveway of the dilapidated complex, strewn with beer bottles, toys and mounting garbage near the Dumpster. “West side” was scrawled onto the side of the building.

Mr. Rodriguez knocked on the door.

After a couple of minutes, it opened – in slow motion. A face with a shy smile appeared: It was the kid.

Mr. Rodriguez greeted him heartily by name. “Why aren’t you in school?”

“I’m sick,” the student answered, in Spanish. “Come in.”

It didn’t take long for Mr. Rodriguez to discern that the teenager – a former student at Santa Barbara High School – wasn’t sick; he was baby-sitting his 2-year-old cousin. Mr. Rodriguez tried to talk to the toddler, who was drinking from a 12-ounce soda bottle that came up to his kneecaps.

“What’s your name?” he asked in Spanish.


“What did you eat for breakfast today?”

The little boy covered his face with a sock he was holding.

“Did you eat eggs?”

The boy nodded.


The boy nodded.


The boy nodded.

Mr. Rodriguez and the teen laughed. Clearly the 2-year-old didn’t eat all – or even any – of those things.

“Do you guys need food?” Mr. Rodriguez asked.

The student was noncommittal. Mr. Rodriguez knew that the mother was too proud to get free food at the local homeless shelter – Casa Esperanza – so he told the teen where it was, and when he could go there.

“Four o’clock?” repeated the student, in English. “Sounds good.”

The visit underscored the depth of the problem: Getting a kid to go to school is a tall order when a family can’t even afford food, let alone a baby sitter.

Still, that didn’t stop Mr. Rodriguez from trying other avenues to coax the boy to school. Several weeks earlier he had offered a new bicycle, which Mr. Rodriguez purchased out of pocket. All that Mr. Rodriguez had asked in return was that the boy do three things: Use it to go to school, demonstrate initiative by purchasing a lock, and show maturity by agreeing to treat his mother better.

It had been three weeks since Mr. Rodriguez first extended the offer, and he wasn’t happy with the student.

“I want that lock,” Mr. Rodriguez said, affecting a stern tone. “And be sure to respect your mother.”

Asked why he hadn’t held up his end of the deal by purchasing a $12 lock, the teen chuckled.

“No money,” he said.

A couple of days later, Mr. Rodriguez bought the lock and gave the boy the bike.

For Mr. Rodriguez, offering the bicycle was more complicated than it sounds.

Marina needs do some errands, but because the RV doesn't run very well her only viable mode of transportation is a bicycle. Her husband is at work. Ernie Rodriguez offers to give Elizabeth a lift a few miles away so she can be watched by a trusted friend.
Marina needs do some errands, but because the RV doesn't run very well her only viable mode of transportation is a bicycle. Her husband is at work. Ernie Rodriguez offers to give Elizabeth a lift a few miles away so she can be watched by a trusted friend.

It required delving into the family’s interpersonal history. The teen’s parents hail from the mountains of rural Mexico, where, Mr. Rodriguez said, women have less status than men. An only son, the boy was treated by his father like royalty compared to all his sisters. His father bought him CDs, a watch, bicycles, shoes. Now that his father is away, the kid views himself as the man of the house. He’s learned that this means disrespecting his mother: questioning her about where she’s been, talking back, refusing to clean up.

Not wanting to overstep his bounds, Mr. Rodriguez was careful to call the boy’s mother before offering the bicycle. Her only request was that Mr. Rodriguez provide the bike on condition that her son promise to stop mistreating her.

Asked about his attitude toward school, the teen said he is changing for the better.

“I used to be really bad, but now I behave,” he said. “I used to ditch, talk back to teachers. . . . But now I listen to my teachers.”


If the number of children served by Mr. Rodriguez’s department seems high, it’s because the county’s definition of homeless doesn’t just include the stereotypical street-roaming transients who sleep in the bushes. In fact, few children in Santa Barbara County – maybe 15 – live this way, according to the department. The highest number – about 500 over the course of a year – live in shelters such as the Transition House in Santa Barbara, or the Good Samaritan Shelter in Santa Maria. Another 300 live like the teenager: “doubled up,” meaning they shack with multiple families in the same house or apartment. About 130 fall under a similar category: transitional settings, meaning they could be on the move, or living with relatives for a few weeks after an eviction. Roughly 100 live in motels, mostly in Lompoc and Santa Maria.

The number of children served – 1,050 – has increased gradually from 840 over the past eight years, though it has dipped slightly since last year. About half the kids reside in Santa Maria, and a third are in Santa Barbara. The balance live in Lompoc.

A graduate of San Marcos High School, Mr. Rodriguez never intended to become a social worker. He attended California State University, Northridge, where, with the idea of becoming a police detective, he earned a degree in sociology. His father had worked as a professional baseball player in Mexico before moving to California in the 1960s to become a custom cabinet maker.

Mr. Rodriguez, who is married with two boys, the eldest a stepson, tried police work for a while but in 1999 he saw an ad in a local newspaper for his current job, and decided to apply. Now his day begins by checking his phone messages, many from local principals asking him to check on certain students whose school attendance has fallen off.

Marina, Elizabeth's mother, is working with the INS to become a documented citizen.
Marina, Elizabeth's mother, is working with the INS to become a documented citizen.

He has many stories.

“One student missed an entire year’s worth of school between kindergarten and fourth grade,” he recounted, while searching for a subsidized apartment complex near Harding Elementary School.

Clean-cut but casual in a button-up shirt, unzipped spring jacket and blue jeans, the easygoing Mr. Rodriguez has a disarming, “good cop” quality.

It is perhaps for this reason that some people actually open the door when he knocks.

Such was the case when he drove to an apartment complex on Victoria Street near San Pascual Street. Harding Elementary’s principal, Sally Kingston, had recently organized a meeting for parents of habitual no-shows, and this particular mother – named Gloria – neglected to attend. Mr. Rodriguez found her unit, and knocked. Two minutes passed. He knocked again. This time, Gloria answered and flashed him a nervous smile of recognition.

Speaking in Spanish, she said she tried to go; she had asked a secretary about the event, but the secretary didn’t know about it. Unlike the high school student, she did not ask Mr. Rodriguez inside. Today, she explained, her youngest daughter was sick. Meanwhile, another daughter, who attends La Cuesta High School, peered around her mother at the visitor. She too, apparently, had skipped school.

“A lot of these people who migrated to the U.S. many years ago – especially with the women, the girls – once they start going to school, (the parents) notice that they are getting smarter than them,” he said. “The parents get scared that the kids think they are getting better than them. They try to keep them down. They say, ‘Why do you go to school? You should go to work.’ ”

Not all of the houses he goes to are rundown or subsidized.

At a later stop in the 800 block of Victoria Street, the bungalow house has a tree swing in the front yard. The yard is neatly manicured.

When Mr. Rodriguez knocked, it took nearly five minutes for a man to answer. He eventually opened the door, reluctantly, and said the first-grade girl Mr. Rodriguez was looking for no longer lived there. Later, when Mr. Rodriguez visited the office of Harding School to explain his findings, the secretaries were puzzled. They had just talked to the girl’s mother less than half an hour earlier, and she had confirmed the address.


Later in the day, Mr. Rodriguez switched gears, morphing from private eye to surrogate parent.

At a local hospice called the Serenity House, he visited a boy, David, and his homeless father, Lee Haralson, who is dying of a brain tumor and has less than three weeks to live, hospice workers say. David – who sleeps in a recliner by his father’s side – has a tendency to stay up all night playing video games at the hospice, and has been falling asleep in class.

“It’s harder for me to learn in class when I got my dad on my mind,” he said while sitting at the edge of his dad’s bed, playing Star Wars. “You all right, Dad?”

His father issued an inaudible moan and slowly lifted his arm. Just three months ago, Mr. Haralson was able-bodied and lucid when he recounted how he took a couple of bullets in Vietnam, had lived in South America until David was old enough for kindergarten, and walked David to Franklin Elementary every day. At the time, he wore at least two homemade rings on every finger. Last week his fingers were so thin the rings slid right off, but he insisted on wearing them.

Mr. Rodriguez went outside the room and asked the director of the hospice to make sure David turned off the video games at 8 p.m. on school nights.

“I don’t mind him playing the Play Station,” he said. “Just not at 1 in the morning.”

As with the teenager, Mr. Rodriguez at one point found himself digging into his own pockets to keep David going to school – to the tune of $200.

The story highlights not only the difficulty of getting homeless kids to school, but also the unpredictability and instability of the homeless population, and how the odds are stacked against their children.

It was almost a year ago, shortly after Mr. Haralson was diagnosed with terminal cancer and preparing to die. His brother, Anthony – himself intermittently homeless – drove over from his home in Colorado with the idea of bringing David all the way back to Michigan, home of the brothers’ father, David’s grandfather.

Mr. Rodriguez helped Franklin Elementary School send David’s file – birth certificate, immunization records and test scores – to enroll in a school in Michigan. But the drive to Michigan hit a snag, and Mr. Rodriguez ended up providing $200 toward David’s plane ticket to his grandfather’s home.

Then, in an unexpected twist around September, Mr. Haralson – already weak from cancer – and a friend drove a broken-down Thunderbird all the way to Michigan to fetch his child. He missed David. This fall, Mr. Rodriguez was surprised to get a phone call from Mr. Haralson, asking how to enroll David into Santa Barbara Junior High School.

Last week, Lee’s brother, Anthony, was back in town, working like mad to fill out the paperwork necessary to gain custody of his nephew, and trying to figure out what to do with the RV in which his brother and nephew had lived. It’s been a race against time: If Anthony doesn’t get the paperwork done before his brother dies, his nephew will become a ward of the state. It’s a fate that even Mr. Rodriguez fears, because he believes David would bolt from a foster home. He also believes Anthony will be a loving parent – the man is already the grandfather of two healthy children.

So, apparently, does David’s father. Despite the two tumors in his head, he is stubbornly refusing to die, making sure to eat and drink just a little bit, Mr. Rodriguez said. The day he called in the fall, Mr. Rodriguez said, “That was the first thing he said to me; ‘I’m not going anywhere till all this is settled.’ ”

Santa Barbara News Press

Back From the Edge

(Click here to watch dramatic video)

Russell Polan had lived with the pain of depression since he was a child, but on Feb. 11, the 54-year-old Hope Ranch resident sank to a new low.

He had just been through a breakup with a woman and was convinced he’d never find another soul mate. After work that day, he went to a tavern for drinks with a friend and they ended up arguing about Mr. Polan’s approach to dating. In the early evening, an intoxicated Mr. Polan stormed out of the bar, started up his small pickup truck and headed toward the 420-foot-tall Cold Spring Canyon Bridge.

Russell Polan is alive only because law enforcement officers saved him when he jumped from the Cold Spring bridge. MIKE ELIASON / NEWS-PRESS FILE
Russell Polan is alive only because law enforcement officers saved him when he jumped from the Cold Spring bridge. MIKE ELIASON / NEWS-PRESS FILE

“I just wanted to see what it would be like to sit up there on the railing and have that option,” he said.

After parking his truck at a pull-off point at the Santa Barbara end of the bridge, he walked halfway across the 1,200-foot long span, stepped over the railing and stood on the 6-inch-wide ledge, feeling the rumble as cars whizzed by. Fifteen minutes later, as a handful of law enforcement officers tried to talk him out of jumping, he let go. Miraculously, the officers grabbed hold of his arms and belt the second he released his grip, and hoisted him to safety over the waist-high railing.

Had deputies from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol not intervened, Mr. Polan would have been the 44th person to take a fatal jump off the bridge since it was built 42 years ago. The incident — along with the deadly plunge of a San Marcos High School student in July — helped spur a movement to build a 6-foot barrier on the bridge to curtail would-be jumpers.

The idea was aired publicly this week by a coalition of law enforcement, highway and mental health officials making up the Cold Spring Arch Bridge Suicide Prevention Committee.

Meanwhile, Mr. Polan is the closest Santa Barbara County has to a survivor of a jump off the bridge; no jumpers have survived a fall from Cold Spring. Mr. Polan believes a barrier would help prevent more suicides.

On Feb. 11, county sheriff's Deputies Clayton Turner and J'aime O'Toole grabbed Russell Polan to stop him from leaping to his death. MIKE ELIASON / NEWS-PRESS FILE
On Feb. 11, county sheriff's Deputies Clayton Turner and J'aime O'Toole grabbed Russell Polan to stop him from leaping to his death. MIKE ELIASON / NEWS-PRESS FILE

For him, the trip to the bridge was a drink-induced whim, not a premeditated mission. The second he was thwarted, his desire to die dissipated.

“It’s so easy — too easy,” he said Thursday. “It was the first place I thought of. . . . I wouldn’t have climbed a fence.”

Although he still battles depression, he said he isn’t in the temporary trough that darkened his mood in the days after his breakup.

“Nobody is worth ending everything for,” said Mr. Polan, who is seeing a psychologist and working at concentrating on the positive aspects of his life, such as his job and surfing.

When members of the suicide prevention committee released their proposal Wednesday night, they seemed to be preparing for opposition, both from groups committed to historical preservation and individuals who believe people who really want to commit suicide will find a way to do it.

Preservation groups in June 2004 vigorously opposed a plan to demolish an 88-year-old bridge in Buellton.

But on the matter of Cold Spring bridge, those groups thus far have been silent, or even sympathetic.

Russell Polan works at a plant that makes diving helmets. MIKE ELIASON / NEWS-PRESS FILE
Russell Polan works at a plant that makes diving helmets. MIKE ELIASON / NEWS-PRESS FILE

“We don’t want any more of this unfortunate activity either,” said Sue Adams, chair of Historic Landmarks Advisory Commission for Santa Barbara County, adding that the bridge needs to be at least 50 years old to be considered for landmark status by the commission.

Jarrell Jackman, executive director of the Santa Barbara Trust for Historical Preservation, said that while he isn’t thrilled with the idea of a barrier, he understands the need.

“I can accept it if there’s an aesthetic solution,” he said.

People tend to think a barrier would cost millions of dollars, 3rd District Supervisor Brooks Firestone said. Caltrans officials estimate the cost at $300,000 — an amount Mr. Firestone believes is low. “Call it a half a million,” he said. “It still makes economic sense.”

He brought up the issue about a week ago at the Solvang Men’s Forum. “At first I sensed opposition to the idea. Then I sensed an overwhelming turnaround when we started talking about these facts.”

Like Mr. Polan, the deputies who pulled him to safety also support a barricade. They may have gone over themselves, were it not for two other officers who grabbed hold of the entire group.

One of the deputies was 29-year-old J’aime O’Toole, who, despite being just 5 feet 3, bent over the railing to grab Mr. Polan’s belt. The move — which was captured on a video camera in another deputy’s car — put the railing at her kneecaps.

Just before the officers saved Mr. Polan, he was chatting with them and seemed to be preparing to climb back over the railing to safety. But then, as the officers drew nearer, his face went slack. He let go at the same moment they lunged forward to grab him.

“All I was thinking was ‘Grab his belt loops and get him over,’ ” Deputy O’Toole said. “I wasn’t thinking, ‘Gosh, I’m high up’ until I looked at the video.”

Another deputy, 37-year-old Clayton Turner, said Mr. Polan’s body was dead weight as they wrestled him back over the rail.

Freeze frame of video showing law enforcement officers rescuing a would-be jumper from the Cold Spring bridge
Freeze frame of video showing law enforcement officers rescuing a would-be jumper from the Cold Spring bridge

“He wanted to go,” he said. Later that night, Mr. Polan thanked Deputy Turner and said he’d never entertain the notion of suicide again.

Mr. Polan, who graduated from San Marcos High School in 1969, works at a plant in Santa Barbara that manufactures scuba diving helmets.

“I know people can get really really low,” he said. “It’s hard to stop people from thinking that going to the other side is any better. . . . It’s important to think for a minute before making that decision.”



To see the video of law enforcement officers rescuing a would-be jumper from the Cold Spring bridge, click here.


The Cold Spring Arch Bridge Suicide Prevention Committee is holding a town hall forum about proposed prevention methods from 6:30-8 p.m. May 22 at Santa Barbara City College, BC245 Forum Room. The meeting will feature a presentation by John Kevin Hines, who survived a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. Information: Joni Kelly at The Glendon Association, 681-0415, ext.

Santa Barbara News Press

Court Fight Over Exit Exam Leaves Students in Limbo

As judges and attorneys sort out the legalities of the California high school exit exam, the fate of seniors like Santa Barbara’s Daniel Lacoy — who takes the test today — hangs in the balance.

For Daniel and tens of thousands of high school seniors statewide who have yet to pass both the English and math portions of the exam, the word that best describes their current state of existence is “limbo.”

In past years, Daniel — a student at La Cuesta Independent Study — could have counted on graduating in the middle of June with the rest of his peers. The month of May would be a cakewalk into the future — the calm before the stress of transition.

However, this is the first year in the history of California in which high school seniors must pass the exit exam to obtain a diploma.

As they take their final shot at passing today, it’s crunch time for about 60 area seniors, or 3.5 percent of the local class of 2006. Statewide, it’s about 47,000 seniors, or 11 percent of the graduating class.

But on Monday, a judge presiding over a lawsuit filed against the state gave unexpected hope to the 47,000 seniors. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Robert Freedman issued a tentative ruling siding with the plaintiffs, who say the exam is discriminatory because the state does not provide an equal education to all students. He plans to make an official ruling on Friday.

Then, on Tuesday, the pendulum swung back. The Attorney General’s Office argued in court that the judge’s inclination should apply only to the 10 students who filed the lawsuit, not the thousands who failed to pass.

As for Daniel, whose twin brother has passed the exam and will walk the stage to graduate, he is simply focused on acing the test that has been nagging him all year.

“No one’s informed me about that,” he said of the political football happening at the state level. “All I know is I have to take the test tomorrow, and if I don’t pass it, I won’t be getting a diploma. . . . This is the real deal.”

For Daniel and the 47,000 others, the uncertainty of the future doesn’t stop at the debate between judges and lawyers. The results of the exam taken today will not be available until July. This means that as his family gathers to celebrate the graduation of his brother, nobody will know whether to say congratulations to Daniel.

“It makes me feel out of place a little bit,” said Daniel, whose efforts to pass the test have been hampered by health issues. “You have your ups and downs. You just get through them.”

Daniel missed four months of his sophomore year because of a life-threatening battle with spinal meningitis. He easily passed the math test but barely fell short on the English test, because of the essay. He was supposed to take the English test again in March but missed the testing date because of an illness he believes was caused by food poisoning.

All year, he has been feverishly writing practice essays, and believes he is prepared for the real thing today, when he sits down to take the three-hour test.

If he passes, he will get on with his plans to become a paramedic, which will require taking some courses in the fall at Santa Barbara City College. If he doesn’t, he may be looking at another year of high school. But Daniel doesn’t even entertain that notion.

“I don’t do Plan B’s,” he said.

The judge said he based Monday’s tentative decision on the plaintiffs’ argument that all California students do not have access to the same quality of education. He said that the harm to students who do not receive their diplomas is serious.

After the tentative ruling, state schools chief Jack O’Connell said he would appeal any ruling blocking the exam’s implementation. He called the test ”a cornerstone of California’s school accountability system.”

Mr. O’Connell wrote the 1999 legislation that enacted the test.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also is a supporter of the exam and criticized the judge’s tentative ruling when it was made public Monday night. He said the test was the state’s best tool to measure school performance and said delaying its consequences ”does a disservice to our children.”

Nationwide, 23 states have graduation exams and four others are phasing them in by 2012, according to the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. Most states also offer options for special needs students and English learners, center President Jack Jennings said.

California’s exam tests 10th-grade English, ninth-grade math and level-one algebra. Students need to answer 60 percent of the questions correctly to pass each section.

Failing students can take another year of high school, get extra tutoring, enroll in summer school or attend community college until they pass.

This story includes reports from The Associated Press.

Santa Barbara News Press

Attorney copes with injuries from January plane crash

Before Jan. 8, 2006, Bill Hansult had never even broken a bone.

“The worst I’d ever had was a sinus infection,” said Mr. Hansult, a 51-year-old attorney well known to government agencies in Santa Barbara County for the lawsuits he’s filed against them on behalf of the Libertarian Party.

But his clean bill of health was forever altered on that fateful day when the small plane in which he was a passenger crashed upside down in the snow near Mammoth Lakes, killing the two other passengers on board.

Bill Hansult (courtesy)
Bill Hansult (courtesy)

The list of his resulting medical problems is stomach-turning: A gash to the forehead that required a blood transfusion and 30 stitches and caused a concussion. A shattered upper left arm. A back broken in three places. A broken right elbow — hinged back together by a lug-bolt. Worst of all, he may lose his left arm.

The first surgery on the shattered left arm — which now contains more metal than bone — failed, and he is hoping cutting-edge medical technology can save it.

He is awaiting surgery to implant a prosthetic shoulder with a balljoint made of concrete. The balljoint is covered with antibiotics that slowly release and are supposed to kill the infection that is eating the bone.

Mr. Hansult doesn’t know when he’ll undergo surgery, but he does know that time is running out. He says he can’t rest his arm on the kitchen counter without experiencing a wave of head-splitting pain.

“If you move the arm the wrong way, the (metal) screws rub on your socket, and let me tell you, you want to just jump out of your skin,” he said from his home in Grover Beach. “The balljoint isn’t getting proper blood flow. It’s dying and literally collapsing.”

Complicating matters is the fact that Mr. Hansult doesn’t have health insurance. He dropped it years ago due to his good health. But he may recoup his costs. Mr. Hansult has retained attorneys and may file a lawsuit.

Attorney Don Ernst of Ernst and Mattison in San Luis Obispo said he is looking into either pilot or mechanical error in the crash, which is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.

“We have not reached any conclusion at this point, except to say what happened to Bill is a tragedy,” said Mr. Ernst. “Our system is one based on fault, and we are going to actively pursue finding that fault.”

The plane, which had a mechanical failure 10 minutes after takeoff then crashed, was piloted by a friend, 59-year-old Joseph Terrell “Terre” Owens of Arroyo Grande, who was killed. Also killed was Carol Maki, 51, of San Luis Obispo.

As his lawyers look into his options, Mr. Hansult is focused on recovery rather than legal work.

He represented the Libertarian Party of Santa Barbara County in a successful suit against the Isla Vista Recreation and Park District that ended with a settlement in December 2004. His fees came to $42,000.

About a year later, he filed another suit against the same district on behalf of the party. Again, the district settled, for $8,000.

In a case that fell short of victory, he represented two local Parent Teacher Association members who charged that the Santa Barbara school board was discussing public business in secret. The judge dismissed 22 of the plaintiffs’ 23 claims in June 2005.

The crash hasn’t stopped his efforts. Last month, Mr. Hansult sent a letter to the Santa Barbara school board threatening a suit, on behalf of the Libertarians, alleging the board violated the Brown Act — the state’s open meetings law — by holding an illegal secret meeting. The board settled for $5,000 without admitting wrongdoing.

“I’ll be looking forward to delving into those Brown Act issues when I’m better,” he said.

Santa Barbara News Press

A third of Santa Barbara students skip school

About 35 percent of the students enrolled in Santa Barbara’s K-12 schools skipped school Monday as part of a boycott protesting a proposed tough law on illegal immigration.

The mass no-show prompted some South Coast school administrators to ratchet up their public disapproval of students missing school to make a political statement on this issue.

Santa Barbara schools Superintendent Brian Sarvis said the boycott — about 5,580 of the schools’ 16,000 chairs were empty — cost the district thousands of state tax dollars and sends the wrong message to the public.

“I think it does harm to their message,” he said. “If they are telling the community this is really important to them, and the community sees they are not serious about being in school, it really mitigates the message.”

Although the no-show was large, the turnout of students who participated in student rallies scheduled during the school day was relatively sparse.

While students had planned a 13-mile procession from Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta to downtown Santa Barbara, Principal Quentin Panek said nobody showed.

But at San Marcos High, about 70 students embarked on a 6.5-mile pilgrimage down Hollister Avenue all the way to Santa Barbara City Hall with Principal Craig Morgan at the rear to ensure safety.

“I know some people don’t think it’s the right thing to do — especially skipping school,” said senior Anna Narciso, who came to the U.S. from Mexico with her parents when she was in preschool.

“But it does make an impact. . . . America is built on immigration. I don’t know how they can say we shouldn’t be here to make a better life when their descendants did the same thing.”

Enthusiasts and organizers of the boycotts also spoke up for the kids who stayed home, saying their seats didn’t remain empty in vain.

“The message it sends out is, ‘I’m here, I’m not invisible. And I deserve a stake or a place at the table, not just for the scraps,’ ” said Carlos Cohen, a college-level history teacher at San Marcos High who used a bullhorn to lead a chant on the steps of Santa Barbara City Hall Monday.

“It will show that another group has asked for their place at the table. This is America.”

Of Santa Barbara’s 20 regular schools, the one with the highest absentee rate was McKinley Elementary, at 63 percent. The school with the lowest was Open Alternative, with 12 percent gone.

Empty seats and quiet hallways were the order of the day from Carpinteria to Santa Maria.

Interestingly, in Santa Maria’s K-12 schools, where three-quarters of the student population is Latino, a smaller proportion of students stayed home — 30 percent — than in Santa Barbara, where roughly half the K-12 student body is Latino.

In a classroom at Santa Barbara Junior High, just three of 21 students showed up to Ruben Gil’s English class for English learners.

“We just spent some time dialoguing, watching CNN part of the time, and just talking about what it felt like for them to be in school when so many of their friends weren’t,” he said.

“They had trouble verbalizing what they were feeling, but basically they felt weird.”

Many of the marching students said they felt they were making a sacrifice for a higher cause. San Marcos High School junior Jose Aldapa said he’s trying hard to keep his grades up so he can attend college, and the unexcused absence will hurt him.

“Teachers are really asking me to do better on my test scores,” he said, speaking over the blare of a bullhorn and the chants from the crowd on Santa Barbara Street around 1 p.m.

Jose fondly described his parents’ rise from dish-washing Mexican immigrants 23 years ago to registered nurses today.

“They’re living their dream,” he said.

In Carpinteria, where one in three students didn’t go to school, Superintendent Paul Cordeiro shared Mr. Sarvis’ disappointment, saying the boycott was tantamount to “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

“Inasmuch as we appreciate people expressing themselves politically, we are saddened that schools have to be the target of this,” he said.

“Schools aren’t businesses; they don’t pass on their costs. Schools just lose money and make it harder to be a good school.”

Santa Barbara school officials said the boycott cost the district about $4,400 in state tax dollars — the equivalent of 67 textbooks — because the state pays the local school district based on daily headcounts.

In the North County, students at Santa Ynez Valley Union High School opted to stay in class Monday, but after school was over, more than 125 showed their support by marching more than two miles into the city of Solvang.

They carried a large white banner that proclaimed, “We value our education and our freedom of speech. We attended classes today.”

About 50 Latino students chose not to attend school Monday, but Principal Norm Clevenger said he wouldn’t know until today how many of those would be excused, rather than truants.

The marching students, joined by some parents, community members, teachers and younger children, all wore white clothing as a show of solidarity and peace.

Sixteen-year-old Maria Gallegeos spent a few minutes before the march preparing her sign, which depicted a photo of author Carlos Fuentes and the quote: “What the United States does best is to understand itself. What it does worst is understand others.”

“I like what it says,” Maria said.

“It is everything happening right now. The U.S. doesn’t understand us. By doing this (march), I’ll make them understand.”

In Lompoc, about one in three students — or 3,000 — missed school. Lompoc Superintendent Frank Lynch said that’s about three times the absentee rate of a normal day.

Generally, the proportion of absent students at any given school district was directly related to its demographic makeup. In Guadalupe, where 94 percent of the students are Latino, about four in 10, or 400 of the district’s 1,000 students, didn’t come to school.

But in the three-school Hope elementary district off of upper State Street, where seven in 10 students are white, fewer than 2 percent of the chairs — or 26 total — were bare, Hope Superintendent Gerrie Fausett said.

News-Press staff writer Nora Wallace contributed to this report.

Santa Barbara News Press

School Board Member Makes an Impression

Listening to Santa Barbara school board member Bob Noel talk, it’s hard to believe that, at one time, the retired UCSB professor was a drag-racing aficionado, a class-cutting swing dancer and a high school dropout.

Or maybe not.

Although the 76-year-old political science expert speaks with professorial eloquence, few would deny he has a rebellious streak.

Depending on whom you ask, the seven-year board member and doctoral graduate of Northwestern University is either a staunch fighter for open governance or an intellectual bully.

Either way, for the second time in several months, he is at the center of a conflict. This time, it’s between him and his four colleagues on the board, and it has gone from tense to downright ugly.

Mr. Noel, who hasn’t decided whether he will run for re-election in November, has initiated a review by the county district attorney into the school board’s practices. He suspects that the board may have broken the law by discussing, in secret, matters that should have been discussed publicly. But what really infuriated his fellow board members — and the school’s superintendent — was his open letter to the public, saying he believes that the board may have improperly discussed, behind closed doors, politically sensitive matters such as budget cuts and school closures, to avoid controversy.

His latest actions have drawn cheers from his supporters — many of them well-heeled Montecito residents, but also advocates of disabled students — and eye rolls from detractors, such as parents at progressive schools and, most notably, the other school board members.

Joan Esposito, founder of the Santa Barbara-based Dyslexia Awareness and Resource Center, credits Mr. Noel’s vigilance and responsiveness.

“He is the only one up there who will ask questions; he doesn’t go with the status quo,” she said. “Bob is the only one that meets at my office with the parents, that responds to parents’ phone calls.”

But Eric Pedersen, a parent at the K-8 Open Alternative School — which Mr. Noel has publicly criticized — said he can be too hungry for controversy.

“My experience in watching him is that he tries to kind of ruffle things up,” he said. “I think he’s barking up the wrong tree right now.”

School board member Lynn Rodriguez said that when she was elected in 2002, she was looking forward to being part of a governance team.

“So it’s frustrating when one member of the board doesn’t want to be part of the team,” said Ms. Rodriguez. She said she is leaning toward not running for re-election in November, although she hasn’t yet decided. “That doesn’t mean we can’t have disagreements,” she added.

Even before the now-infamous meeting on April 11, local school board watchers could detect his colleagues’ anger by reading the meeting’s agenda. One item declared that Mr. Noel’s disclosure of confidential information was “unauthorized” — implying that he may have broken the state’s open meeting law himself.

This set the stage for Mr. Noel to display his gift for confrontational eloquence, and he didn’t disappoint. But this time, embedded in his flow of words was a trace of a legal threat.

“There is an item, E2, what I would consider to be an escalation of a conflict between the author of the agenda — you — and me,” he told school board President Annette Cordero. “Your escalation is an invitation for me not to roll over, but to defend myself. And then I would wonder if you had given any thought to how I might defend myself. And then I would ask even further whether you’d given any thought to the implications of a public airing of that dispute for the welfare of this district as a public body.”

Thus began a four-hour bout of pent-up handwringing: Mr. Noel felt he was being blasted for whistle-blowing; his colleagues felt wrongly accused — not only about this issue, but also on many other topics that have led to his trademark inquiries.

Three months ago, it was Mr. Noel who put a ballyhooed swimming pool project in jeopardy by questioning whether the board was spending too much voter-approved bond money on athletics at the expense of building classrooms. (The project was approved.)

On more than one occasion, his style has caused new watchers of the school board to glance at one another and mouth, “Who is that guy?”


Mr. Noel is a Southern California native. His father was a Hollywood still-shot photographer and Canadian immigrant; his mother, a homemaker and daughter of Scottish immigrants.

Born in Pasadena on Nov. 14, 1929, Mr. Noel spent his young years pursuing flight-of-fancy interests. In a sense, he owes his eventual path to academia and local politics to an institution he acutely disliked: the military.

Mr. Noel grew up in a lower middle-class household until his parents got divorced when he was 11. Then he lived with his mother and brother. He worked the graveyard shift at a factory to help make ends meet.

Now, although Mr. Noel isn’t exactly wealthy, he enjoys a rambling home in the Eucalyptus Hill neighborhood with sweeping views of the ocean and city. It was a one-bedroom house when he and his wife, Leila Jacobson Noel, purchased it in 1984 for $240,000.

Over the years, he and Leila, an attorney, have added several rooms, including three bedrooms — one for each of their two sons, plus a study — and a hexagonal sunroom with a glass window in the ceiling.

Mr. Noel either strongly embraces the trait of being professorial, or just happens to epitomize the word.

At meetings, he adheres to strict standards of decorum, frequently addressing, in a sonorous voice, the school board president as “Madame Chair.”

Physically, with his gray hair and eyebrows, he’s more Jimmy Carter than Ronald Reagan, preferring turtlenecks and cardigans to suits and ties. But politically, the registered Democrat is more Kissinger real-politick than Clinton idealism, often rallying against education reforms, which he refers to as “fuzzy math” and “fuzzy English.”

Sitting in his sunroom this week, Mr. Noel recalled his history.

“I was supposed to have graduated in 1947 — I did not,” he said. “I was very busy with cars and dancing.”

Mr. Noel owned a pair of blue suede shoes, and he traveled all over Southern California to dance the Lindy Hop at the feet of Big Bands such as Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman or Count Basie.

In 1946, he took second place in a Southern California roadster race; his ’32 Ford reached the now-unremarkable speed of 116 mph. “Some rich guy from San Marino took first,” he said.

Meanwhile, his studies suffered.

“My colleagues (at UCSB) once got ahold of my high school transcripts,” he said. “They had a ball with it. (One report card) had three D’s, four F’s — it was awful.”

Mr. Noel didn’t cause too much trouble, although he was suspended once for making brass knuckles in foundry class. His brother, Tom Noel, was another story. After getting kicked out of several elementary and middle schools, he wound up at a military high school, where they strapped leg irons on him to keep him from running away. It didn’t work.

“He was really bright — he had an encyclopedic mind,” Mr. Noel said. “If he had parents and teachers who knew what to do with the I.Q., who knows what he could have accomplished.”

But if there was one thing both brothers had in common, it’s that the military helped them find their talents.

Tom, who died in the early 1990s, honed his skills as an expert mechanic. Bob, who served in the Korean War, was exposed to friends with college degrees and genteel tastes, such as classical music. And in his trademark outsider way, he learned that he disliked the authoritarian culture of the military. He was behind the front lines, working as a radio operator, but the ear-popping bang of artillery blasting from the heavy guns behind his bunker woke him up every night. He said it sounded like car crashes.

“What I got out of Korea, aside from getting out alive, was a very intense dislike of war,” said Mr. Noel, who lost a friend to a land mine. Without a trace of irony, he added: “I decided to devote my life to preventing war.”

When he returned, he signed up for community college classes in Pasadena.

From then on, his academic apathy dissolved. In a few short years, he blazed through three schools — UC Riverside, Claremont Graduate School and Northwestern — winding up with a doctorate in political science. Ultimately, he was head-hunted by the chair of UCSB’s political science department. He worked there for nearly 30 years, retiring in 1994.

The genesis of his involvement with the school board can be summed up in two words: Fuzzy math.

Mr. Noel learned that his son didn’t have a math textbook at Cleveland Elementary. Instead, the school had adopted a curriculum known as “Mathland,” which was a workbook accompanied by visual tools such as plastic pie-charts.

“That led to an investigation — an inquiry — on my part,” he said.

Mr. Noel asked a UCSB math professor to come to his house and explain the concept of “Mathland” to him and a group of concerned parents.

“The more I looked into it, the more I didn’t like it.”

In what would become the first of a large body of pithily titled reports, he penned a 20-page missive: “The New New Math.” The News-Press ran a story headlined: UCSB professor gives ‘new math’ F. (The program has since been dropped.)

His second career had begun.

Mr. Noel became a gadfly. He started rounding up friends to attend board meetings. He worked as a political consultant for two like-minded potential candidates — Fred Rifkin and Bob Pohl — and helped them get elected. In 1998, he decided to run and won. In 2002, he was elected to a second term.

Compared to his current status as the board’s maverick, his first term was considerably easier. One of his proudest moments is when the board voted to overturn bilingual education, one year before the state of California did the same. Now his political allies have moved on, and the board often votes 4-1, with Mr. Noel as the lone dissenter.


Meanwhile, his frustration has seemed to grow. Mr. Noel’s inquiries have grown more numerous and the meetings more confrontational. His frustration has been matched by that of his fellow board members.

At some points, the April 11 meeting took on the air of the Jerry Springer show, with audience members heckling and board members responding.

At one point, school board member Laura Malakoff, after being interrupted several times by a member of the audience, looked up and said, “This is a way to model for your children? That you interrupt somebody who’s speaking? . . . I find you extremely rude, I’m sorry.”

In a voice filled with anger, longtime school board member Nancy Harter read from a statement.

“I’m angry and resentful we are giving up time for this discussion when we have pressing business to discuss,” she said, “so much so that we are scheduled to meet every week from now through June. . . . I am anxious to share with the public what went on in that closed session because I wish to be vindicated.”

Despite the rancor, there remain some signs of civility on the board. After Monday night’s school board meeting, Ms. Harter, walking past Mr. Noel in a corridor, stopped to wish him well with a surgery he was to undergo two days later for diverticulitis. “By God, that’s a statesman,” he said later.

For his part, Mr. Noel insists that he has not accused anybody of anything. He has merely “raised questions,” and taken a beating for doing so.

More generally, Mr. Noel disputes that he’s simply itching for an intellectual scrap. In his view, he’s a proud outsider, a spokesman for the taxpayer who refuses to join the “Camelot club.”

“The hardest thing in the world is to keep your independence — we eat dinner together in that closed session,” he said. “It’s hard to avoid being co-opted, on a personal level. ‘We’re all in this together — team, team team.’

“My job is not to trust that organization. My job is to watch that organization.”

Santa Barbara News Press

Gopher Problems: Student Injuries Spur School District to Prepare for Assault on Critters

Talisa Hail was trying out for the San Marcos High School soccer team last year when she became a victim of the school’s gopher-hole minefield.

She stepped in a hole, blew out a knee and wound up on the operating table. While the team went on to win the Southern California championship this season, the sophomore was in rehab, tearfully learning how to walk again.

As the ground squirrels and gophers have multiplied, so have stories like hers.

Two student athletes who were injured by gopher holes. NEWS-PRESS PHOTOGRAPHY
Two student athletes who were injured by gopher holes. NEWS-PRESS PHOTOGRAPHY

Now, the Santa Barbara school district is upping the ante, leaving behind its pesticide-free approach and unleashing chemicals.

On April 3 and 7, employees with local contractor Agri-Turf Supplies will be lighting smoke cartridges and stuffing them into holes to bring relief to a school besieged by vermin.

“Those fields will be safe,” said Abe Jahadhmy, the school’s athletic director. “They’re going to use the pesticides, then the next step is to level (the fields) out.”

School officials say they have exhausted their other pesticide-free options, such as trapping and using tractors to fill holes, and are moving to the next-least-toxic method.

They say they will not resort to so-called fumatoxins, one of the most dangerous forms of pest control.

“I think the fumatoxin days are long gone,” school facilities director David Hetyonk said. “It’s not even under consideration.”

However, if the current method doesn’t work, Mr. Hetyonk may ask the school board to approve stronger weapons, such as diphacinone, an odorless yellow powder that causes fatal internal hemorrhaging in rodents.

In adult humans, it can cause nausea, and the Children’s Health Environmental Coalition argues that it can cause birth defects. Diphacinone was among the solutions recommended by the school’s integrated pest management committee.

Even though it is generally agreed that the risk posed by the smoke cartridges is minimal, the issue underscores the tricky balancing act school officials must keep in mind when addressing pests — especially in an area known for its cutting-edge anti-pesticide policies.

Ground squirrels and gophers have multiplied on the campus at San Marcos High School. NEWS-PRESS PHOTOGRAPHY
Ground squirrels and gophers have multiplied on the campus at San Marcos High School. NEWS-PRESS PHOTOGRAPHY

On one hand, using pesticides can expose kids and others to harmful chemicals. But refraining from using them when the pest population is proliferating brings its own set of risks, officials said.

Called the Giant Destroyer, the smoke cartridges that won the school board’s approval Tuesday night contain potassium nitrate and sulphur, two key ingredients of gunpowder.

“Have you ever lit a smoke bomb? That’s exactly what it looks like,” said Agri-Turf representative Robert Muraoka, who noted that his company has never used this method before — it normally uses fumatoxins.

Mr. Muraoka said the smoke cartridges are only harmful when the victim is enclosed in a small space, much as smoke from a house fire or carbon monoxide from a car can be. “Cars spew out carbon monoxide all the time, don’t they, but you don’t see people keeling over in the street.”

The Santa Barbara school district has an integrated pest management policy, a step away from a full-blown ban on pesticides.

Under the district’s policy, maintenance workers first must try nontoxic methods to kill squirrels, gophers, bees and other pests. When those methods fail, they must receive permission from the school board to use pesticides — the least toxic first. If approval is granted, a letter detailing the pesticide of choice and date of application is sent to every parent at the school.

This school year, the schools have had to resort to pesticides two other times — both because bees had nested in inaccessible areas: the red-tile roofing at La Cumbre Junior High School and a masonry wall near a ball field at San Marcos.

Injured student athletes say the latest measures have been a long time in coming.

San Marcos High softball player Lauren Brous was fielding a ground ball when the ball took a bum hop off a hole and struck her on the mouth.

“My lips were blown up for like four or five days,” she told the school board Tuesday night.

Said her father, Greg Brous, in a letter to the school dated Feb. 6: “Luckily, she did not lose any teeth, or this letter would be from my lawyer.”

Football player Michael Torres was running laps during spring training two weeks ago when he tripped over a hole and broke his foot. Now, he’s on crutches.

“It’s in a part of the foot where there’s not much circulation, so there’s a good chance it may not heal correctly,” said the linebacker. That means surgery is a strong possibility, he said.

Underground critter catacombs aren’t the only problem. Teachers say ground squirrels have been running amok in their classrooms.

One is so familiar he’s been named.

“Petie is very bold and will run up to my feet when I am working at my desk. He jumps into the trash can and even leapt onto my podium table,” English teacher Cara Gamberdella wrote to school administrators. “He sometimes brings a friend (we haven’t named him yet).”

Teacher Helen Murdoch wrote on Nov. 30: “I worry that the squirrels might bite a student or destroy classroom property. They also come out while the students are eating lunch and are getting braver each month.”

Pesticide watcher Eric Cardenas, spokesman for the local nonprofit environmental law firm Environmental Defense Center, applauded the district’s use of smoke cartridges.

“We like to promote doing the least toxic thing first,” he said.

But he warned against using diphacinone, primarily because evidence suggests it also kills carcass-eating animals, such as raptors. As an alternative possible next step, he recommended using another method that was also endorsed by the committee: the nontoxic Rode-trol, a dry, corn-based pesticide that expands in the belly of the beast.

In addition to consulting the committee, district officials sought the advice of a renowned pest-management guru, Phil Boise of the Gaviota-based nonprofit group Urban-Ag Ecology, who recommended the smoke bombs.

“I believe the risk of these smoke cartridges is assumed exclusively by the applicator,” he wrote in a letter to the district. “In my experience, the smoke remains in the runs for no more than 15 minutes, and I haven’t seen it travel more than 20 to 25 feet.”

As for Talisa, her surgery required replacing her torn ligament with one from a dead person. She also has a screw in her knee. Still, she’s optimistic that she’ll play next year and has been playing well in her springtime club league.

“It was heartbreaking because soccer has really shaped me as a person,” she said of her involuntary hiatus. “It’s been my first everything: first love, first heartbreak, first commitment. . . . I’m not sure what the gassing will do. I hope it does great things.”

Santa Barbara News Press

Goleta Board Criticized Over Firing of Principal

A group of about 50 parents and teachers assailed the Goleta school board and superintendent Wednesday night for abruptly terminating the contract of La Patera School Principal Sonia Schultz.

The brouhaha marked the second time in a week that parents have delivered district officials a public drubbing in support of Ms. Schultz, who was told she could return to the classroom as a teacher next fall.

Among her supporters who spoke to the board was her husband, Trent Schultz, who charged that one of the board members who voted on the matter on March 1 should have recused himself because of a conflict of interest.

The board member, Manor Buck, is married to the classroom aide of a teacher who is Ms. Schultz’s most vocal detractor on staff, he said.

“I would call her an insubordinate employee,” said Mr. Schultz, a 41-year old engineer, who did not mention names during his public comment.

“The district has listened to her rhetoric and now has started making decisions based upon it.

“The board member,” he continued, “seconded the motion to remove (Ms. Schultz).”

Reached at home Wednesday night, a woman who described herself as “someone who lives in the house” with the teacher, Judy Jenkins, said Ms. Jenkins did not care to comment on Mr. Schultz’s remarks.

Meanwhile, Ms. Schultz, 49, — who is in the midst of her sixth year as leader — is appealing the decision, which she said was meted out with little explanation other than she does not fit the preferred “style” of the Goleta elementary district.

“I am just happy for the support,” Ms. Schultz said after the meeting. “If it’s not my job, it’s my integrity I am fighting for. . . . I have faith in the board that they will reconsider.”

Ms. Schultz earns $99,000 a year as principal of La Patera. On average, teachers in Goleta earn about $62,000.

Ms. Schultz, a Puerto Rican, has said that she is the only native Spanish-speaking administrator in the district. She and supporters say this makes her an especially good fit at La Patera, where six in 10 students are Latino.

The school board did not respond to the dozen or so speakers who vouched for Ms. Schultz, other than to say her appeal hearing would be held in closed session on March 22.

The board’s silence seemed to echo the words of Superintendent Kathleen Boomer at a PTA meeting last week, when she told about 100 parents that confidentiality laws precluded her from giving them a reason for the decision recommending that Ms. Schultz be removed.

On Wednesday night, Ms. Boomer took notes while the supporters spoke, rarely looking at the speakers at the podium.

Leroy Jeffers, a member of the local Elks Lodge, credited Ms. Schultz for being extremely helpful with a free-throw shooting contest he organizes at the school.

“Why do you let a girl like this go?” he asked.