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Neighbors escort pupils back-to-school in troubled Lower Haight

Photo(s) by Gregory Bartning

By Pat Murphy

August 31, 2006

Adults cocooned Lower Haight children back-to-school Monday as many pupils crossed gang turf boundaries for the first time to attend John Muir Elementary School.

Closure of John Swett Elementary School sent former Swett students to Muir, a decision last spring based on insufficient state funding due to low enrollment.

The prospect of children crossing gang territories in a violence ravaged neighborhood frightened and angered parents when the decision to close John Swett was announced.

Over the summer they organized for arrival of the first school day, and Monday positioned themselves where gang members and drug dealers ply recruitment - the bus stop where many pupils arrive for school at Haight and Webster Streets.

"We all celebrated back-to-school with our neighborhood children on the two worst blocks of the lower Haight neighborhood -- the 300 and 400 blocks of Haight Street," Vallie Brown of the Lower Haight Neighborhood Organization told the Sentinel.

"These two blocks have been claimed by drug dealers and users for decades," said Brown.

"Unfortunately, these are also the two blocks our neighborhood children have to walk through to catch buses to go to schools all over the City or to walk to John Muir Elementary.

"The neighborhood took back the blocks for our children for at least one morning.. it's a start."

Participating groups included the John Muir PTA, the Lower Haight Neighborhood Association, the District 5 School Community Network, the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association, the Hayes Valley Safety Network.

Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Bevan Dufty helped coordinate the event.
Dufty represents the District 8 lower portion of Hayes Valley in which John Swell Elementary School is location. District 5 represented by Mirkarimi is home to John Muir Elementary School.

Bevan Dufty, left, with Ross Mirkarimi

Gail Baugh of the newly formed Muir PTA led neighbors in walking children to Muir. Merchants provided school supplies and served apples, juice, and oatmeal muffins. Starbucks donated coffee for the adults.

Swett closure and continuing violence roused neighbors to form the escort, Mirkarimi told the Sentinel.

"It's a response to the constellation of school closures and the crime in the area where my office, partnering with a number of community organizations, wanted to make sure that we reclaim our streets, that we have a safe environment for our children," stated Mirkarimi.

"We are launching this program starting today with the first day of school where we will make sure that there will be new neighborhood watch programs in the Lower Haight-Western Addition vicinity.

"Especially making sure that our young are not feeling unsafe or that crime impedes their ability to go to and from school.

"It's important to all of us that the future of San Francisco is protected, making sure that our youth... are not compromised by any breach of safety."

Police Chief Heather Fong, Police Kevin Captain Dillon, Daniel Homsey of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services participated with approximately 100 residents.

"It was good to have the Mayor's Office, Neighborhood Services, Police Chief Fong and her command staff there," Mirkarimi acknowledged.

He asserted that neighbors planned for public safely where the School District had not.

"That was one of the prevailing concerns that we had about the whole school closure process," continued Mirkarimi.

"There was no public safety plan that came out of the process so our office, in concert with a number of community partners, put a public safety plan in place."




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