TUSD has paused plans to add a taller fence around the entrance of Sam Hughes Elementary School, following complaints from residents that it would interfere with the neighborhood’s historic nature and the quality of the kids’ school experiences.
Tucson Unified School District’s plan for taller fencing is part of a broader initiative to improve safety features at all campuses. At Sam Hughes Elementary in particular, it also stems from an incident last year in which police say a man climbed the shorter fence and intruded into a classroom full of students.
A couple of residents spoke during the district’s Jan. 24 governing board meeting to ask officials to consider the community’s concerns before moving forward with the plan for an eight-foot-tall chain-link fence.
Then, last Tuesday, several TUSD officials attended the Sam Hughes Neighborhood Association’s monthly board meeting to discuss a possible compromise.
“I certainly understand the concerns and the predicament,” said Gayle Hartmann, president of the neighborhood association. “I think it would’ve been helpful to have a little better communication there” from the district, she added.
District Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo told the association, “I wanted to reassure everybody that, until we collaborate, talk and discuss the issue, this project has been put on hold. Our goal is to strike a balance between school and student safety, but also maintaining the spirit and the aesthetics of the Sam Hughes neighborhood and culture.”
The midtown neighborhood, immediately east of the University of Arizona main campus, was established in 1877 and designated as a national historic district in 1994. It is named for Samuel C. Hughes, who helped incorporate Tucson in the early 1870s and served on its first city council.
The neighborhood stretches from Speedway to Broadway and from Campbell Avenue to Country Club Road. The average home value there was more than $337,000 in 2019, compared with an average of $221,000 in the city as a whole, according to city-data.com.
Sixteen architectural styles are represented but the majority of Sam Hughes homes were built in the Spanish eclectic style, many of them during a construction boom from 1923 to 1932, Star archives show. Prominent local architect Roy O. Place designed the elementary school, which opened in 1927.
Sam Hughes Elementary now serves about 370 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, its website says.
‘Need for security improvements’
There is currently a four-foot tall chain-link fence on the school’s west side. The district’s safety improvement plan called for adding another four feet to the existing fence, said Greg Meier, TUSD facilities management director.
TUSD School Safety Director Joseph Hallums told board members the purpose of the fence is not to keep bullets from going in, but to restrict access for potential intruders.
He noted that most TUSD schools were built more than 60 years ago with the intention of making campuses welcoming, rather than keeping intruders out. And while the district wants to continue respecting the Sam Hughes history and culture, it’s also responsible for the safety of students and staff, he noted.
Hallums said adding a taller fence isn’t “foolproof” and wouldn’t entirely prevent intruders from trespassing, but would slow them down, adding crucial seconds or minutes for employees to react and address a security situation.
“Unfortunately, there’s been numerous events around the country and even at Sam Hughes individually that highlight the need for security improvements at our school,” he said.
‘Eye-opening’ incident last year
Principal Kathryn Bolasky said Sam Hughes Elementary dealt with an intruder on campus on Feb. 14, 2022.
Bolasky said she initially received notice of a disgruntled individual standing on Wilson Avenue, on the west side of campus. After seeing that the man wasn’t “in the right frame of mind,” she immediately called for the school to go on lockdown, but as she did, he climbed the fence and entered a classroom full of about 25 students.
She said she was able to convince the intruder to leave the classroom, and stayed with him for about 15 minutes before law enforcement arrived. During that time, she said, the intruder scaled the fence back and forth multiple times, peered through windows and banged on classroom doors.
“It was just very eye opening to see how easily someone could get into our school, onto our campus,” Bolasky said. “It was something that could’ve had a very, very different outcome.”
Public Information Officer Frank Magos of the Tucson Police Department confirmed that officers detained a 39-year-old man for trespassing on the campus. He was arrested and charged with multiple misdemeanors, including disorderly conduct, and was released that day.
“The officers did say that he had very erratic behavior, but we don’t know if it was a mental crisis that he was going through or if it was drug-induced,” Magos said.
Trujillo said it’s not uncommon in the district for people to enter school property without authorization, but that higher fences have helped in some cases.
For example, he said, the district struggled with homeless people setting up camps at the Bioenvironmental Learning Lab of Borton Elementary Magnet School on 22nd Street, where students use the desert ecosystem for learning experiences.
He said a grant from the Pascua Yaqui Tribe helped cover the cost of putting up a wrought-iron fence that effectively keeps people off of the property if not authorized to be there.
‘Penitentiary yard’ image
For his part, Sam Hughes Neighborhood Association board member Vytas Sakalas said he fully supports TUSD in its efforts to make the school as safe and secure as possible.
“I don’t think it’s up to any neighborhood group to try to impinge on that responsibility,” he said. “We need to support the school administrators, the teachers and the parents.”
But one Sam Hughes parent who identified himself as Erik and participated virtually in the neighborhood meeting said that, while he believes the aesthetics of the neighborhood matter, he’s more concerned about how a taller fence will affect the students’ experiences at the school.
He noted that the school’s playground is very small and said he worries about how students will feel when that small space is surrounded by a towering fence.
“So they’re going to be in a penitentiary yard? That’s a bit of a charged version, but nonetheless it gets the point across,” Erik said.
Jacob Bricca, another neighborhood resident, said he agreed the taller fence would be a burden for the children.
“There are people who are parents who are concerned about safety, but are equally concerned that … we can’t just build ourselves bigger and bigger walls to get out of these situations,” Bricca said.
Hartmann added: “I think you can sense that there’s a lot of neighborhood concern. I think all of us want children to be safe, but we don’t like the idea of the school looking like a fortress.”
More attractive option sought
“I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t work out some kind of a solution where the school is fenced, I hope aesthetically (and) not too tall, but that the playground is left somewhat more accessible to the community,” Hartmann said.
Meier said a wrought-iron fence could be a more aesthetically pleasing alternative to the chain-link fence.
But, he noted, the cost would increase substantially, from $25,000, which the district currently has on hand for the school, up to $78,000 to cover just the west side of the campus, where the intrusion occurred last year.
A board member asked if the $25,000 now earmarked for the Sam Hughes fencing could instead be used to invest in technology that could also help keep intruders off campus. Meier said that’s an option that can be explored, but that some technologies might be more expensive than a fence.
Hartmann asked the TUSD officials if they could create another, more aesthetically pleasing proposal with the funding the district has available. Trujillo agreed and said the issue will be taken to the governing board for further discussion.
Sakalas suggested looking at other funding sources.
“Is there any way that we could possibly help with the finances by doing a fundraiser to pay for the more expensive wrought-iron fence, rather than the chain-link fence?” Sakalas asked.
“That would definitely help,” Meier said.
Photos: Sam Hughes neighborhood in Tucson
Have any questions or news tips about K-12 education in Southern Arizona? Contact reporter Genesis Lara at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lara joined the Star in 2021. She previously worked for the Nogales International, where she was named the 2019 Community Journalist of the Year by the Arizona Press Club & 2020 Journalist of the Year for non-dailies by the Arizona Newspaper Association.