Just when it seems like the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) has bitten off more than it can chew, it goes in for another bite.
This was the case last week when news broke that District Superintendent Sandra Lyon had referred over to the sheriff’s department an accusation of vandalism and possible trespassing against one or more individuals who entered school grounds in order to take samples for PCB testing. The decision was made, according to multiple school board members, without direction from the SMMUSD Board of Education.
America Unites (AU) for Kids founder Jennifer deNicola, an outspoken activist fighting for PCB remediation at Malibu schools and a longtime thorn in the side of the SMMUSD, is unofficially considered by many to be the target of the investigation.
“I was recently made aware of vandalism at Malibu High School (MHS) and Juan Cabrillo Elementary School (JCES),” begins a letter sent to Malibu parents by Lyon, dated Nov. 4. “Repaired building materials were damaged in areas where remediation work in connection with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) removal activities was completed over the summer 2015 school break.
“Due to the tens of thousands of dollars in damage and the destruction of school property caused by these activities, this incident has been reported to the Los Angeles County Sheriff ’s Department, which is investigating. The District is fully cooperating with the investigation.”
According to Sgt. Matthew Dunn of the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff ’s Station, the initial estimate on damage to the school was around $2,000, but that is not expected to last.
“The original estimate, I believe was about $2,000,” Dunn said, adding that one of the investigators on the case, Detective J.T. Manwell, predicts that number is going up. “The last word I got from Detective Manwell was it may skyrocket from there.”
This is due to the volatility of the substances that may have been removed.
“It may have gone up significantly from there, depending on how they have to treat PCBs,” Dunn said.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were a common building material in the mid- 20th century, but were later discovered to be hazardous substances. PCBs were first discovered in soil of the Malibu Middle School quad in 2009, which was not made public until October 2013, after several teachers expressed concern that cases of thyroid cancer among staff could have a causal link. This summer, the SMMUSD remediated PCBs in several classrooms, along with light fixtures throughout MHS and JCES.
The issue of PCBs and the referral to the sheriff ’s department were not discussed during the Thursday, Nov. 5 School Board meeting that took place in Malibu, a meeting from which Lyon was absent.
“I think the staff are very proud of our boss, who has recently been nominated and selected to be in a national organization of superintendents,” said Associate Superintendent Jan Maez, explaining it was this award that kept Lyon from the meeting. “She is back on the East Coast.”
The meeting was attended by nearly 50 protesters, many from AU, who received vocal support from both Malibu City Council Member Skylar Peak and School Board Member Oscar de la Torre.
De la Torre, who himself was the subject of a police investigation when he was a member of the Santa Monica City Council, and who was eventually cleared of the charges, drew comparisons to his own experience.
“It reminds me of when the City of Santa Monica … the police department led a four-month investigation against me on criminal charges that led to City Council to call for a full investigation … and found that the police department was unethical and biased,” de la Torre recalled. “It was a big waste of tax dollars and it was very negative to the City of Santa Monica and the police department.
“It’s something that’s very difficult for families to go through … just the allegations alone are very damaging and there’s a lot of fear and distrust.”
De la Torre also insinuated that the school board was not part of the decision making group that approached the Sheriff ’s Department, something Board Member Craig Foster affirmed.
“To my knowledge, it was a staff decision,” Foster told The Malibu Times. “By the time I figured out what was happening, it was already happening.”
The criminal investigations served to galvanize AU supporters, who hosted a rally in front of Malibu City Hall Thursday afternoon before the start of the meeting, in front of press and supporters. Speakers included de la Torre, Peak and Malibu parents, and AU members Beth Lucas, Anson Williams and Hope Edelman.
“As a parent, it makes me sick,” de la Torre said at the rally. “If they’re going to arrest anyone, they may as well go ahead and put a handcuff on me.”
DeNicola has been silent on the issue since word first came of the charges, but has been vehemently defended by AU members.
“The facts will reveal that Jennifer has done nothing wrong. She’s been a force for good in this situation from the very start, and has widespread support in the community and the City of Malibu,” Edelman wrote in an email to The Malibu Times. “We all know that ‘vandalism’ requires malicious intent. What’s malicious about wanting to protect the health of children and students?
“SMMUSD’s time would be better spent focusing on the fact that the campus is in serious violation of Federal law.”