School Choice & Charters

Deaths Stir Doubts About Outdoor Academy

By Rhea R. Borja — March 19, 2003 5 min read
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San Francisco school officials may shut down an outdoor-oriented charter school and are scrutinizing their district’s safety and liability policies, after two students plunged 67 feet to their deaths on a school-organized backpacking trip in the California wilderness.

Autopsies showed that Vladislav Bogomolny and Mikhail Nikolov, both 17-year- old students at the 150-student Urban Pioneer Experiential Academy in San Francisco, died March 4 from blunt trauma to their heads, consistent with a fall. They were deep in the Los Padres National Forest, a two-hour drive south of the San Francisco Bay area.

The students may have been drinking alcohol brought by two older teenagers not connected to the academy, authorities said, although the results of toxicology tests to determine if the students had been drinking had not been released as of late last week.

If authorities find that the boys had alcohol in their systems, they may charge the older teenagers, said Bill Cassara, a spokesman for the Monterey County sheriff. He did not identify the older youths.

Although authorities have detected no obvious signs of foul play, the investigation is ongoing, and a finding of suspicious death has not been ruled out, Mr. Cassara added.

Charter Up for Renewal

As one of six charter schools in the 60,000-student San Francisco school system, the Urban Pioneer Academy shoulders sole responsibility and liability for its students’ safety, according to Gary Larson, a spokesman for the California Network of Educational Charters, a Sacramento-based charter school association.

Nevertheless, officials from the San Francisco Unified School District, which granted the school a one-year charter last year, are taking a hard look at the district’s safety policies, and criticizing Urban Pioneer’s record on safeguarding its students on outdoor trips. The school board had already been slated to decide this spring whether to renew Urban Pioneer’s charter for five years.

Student expeditions, such as the one Mr. Bogomolny and Mr. Nikolov participated in, are an essential part of the school’s curriculum. It emphasizes “experiential,” outdoor-based learning akin to that of Outward Bound USA, a national, nonprofit adventure- education group based in Golden, Colo. Urban Pioneer has no affiliation with Outward Bound.

As soon as they learned of the incident, district officials cut short several other school camping trips under way in the Los Padres National Forest involving San Francisco students. They also indefinitely suspended all district-sponsored outdoor trips and are conducting an internal investigation of the incident.

Urban Pioneer, targeted at inner-city students, started in September. Before then, it had operated since 1974 as a district-run program for students throughout the San Francisco system.

Last year, Urban Pioneer received a $317,000 state grant, and the school board awarded it a charter for one year instead of the usual five years. District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman had recommended that the board reject the charter proposal.

“The district no longer has confidence in the ability of the petitioners to successfully implement the safety provisions set forth in their charter petition,” she wrote to the board in 2001.

Ms. Ackerman’s qualms stemmed from prior problems with student safety in the Urban Pioneer program.

Two years ago, a half-day field trip to a protest rally against logging turned into a multiday trip when a group of students, supervised only by a 19-year-old volunteer, got lost and were then arrested for trespassing on private logging land, according to Jill Wynns, a member of the district school board.

Prior Safety Concerns

Ms. Wynns also cited incidents in which students in the program got lost overnight while on camping trips. And in 1994, U.S. Forest Service rangers had to rescue Urban Pioneer students and staff members during a wilderness trip after they got caught in a blizzard without appropriate gear, she said.

“They were put in danger,” Ms. Wynns said of students involved in those earlier incidents.

The academy “doesn’t have to comply with district policies,” she said. “This is a very serious question for a charter in which students engage in risky behavior.”

Urban Pioneer staff members could not be reached last week for comment.

But Mr. Larson of the California Network of Educational Charters, which is helping the charter school communicate with the district in its investigation, said the recent deaths were a tragic anomaly.

He said that Urban Pioneer has a strong record with the district, and that the most serious injury a student suffered before the March incident was a broken leg.

When leading expeditions with students, outdoor education teachers must weigh such factors as students’ maturity, their wilderness skills, and safety overall, said Kathleen Mitchell, the director of the Los Angeles County Outdoor Science School in Wrightwood. She is a member of the Association of Environmental and Outdoor Education, a Wrightwood, Calif.-based nonprofit organization.

“It’s a tough balancing act,” she said, “holding their hand and also letting them do things so they become responsible.”

Students Go ‘Solo’

The fatal incident happened on the last night of an 11-day expedition. Late during the cool, moonless night, Mr. Bogomolny and Mr. Nikolov reportedly walked away from their group, perhaps toward the teachers’ base camp two miles away.

They apparently lost their footing on a dirt path and fell into a ravine, authorities said. Classmates found the two at the bottom of a steep gorge in the Arroyo Seco River the next morning.

The pair died on the “solo” part of the trip, in which the 27 students were divided into groups of nine and left by themselves overnight.

The intent of such “solos,” as they’re called, is to foster self-reliance and to give students a chance to practice outdoor- survival techniques. Urban Pioneer has allowed students to go on overnight solo trips since its inception.

“Nothing is different with respect to the way Urban Pioneer was conducting itself” on the most recent trip, Mr. Larson said.

The expedition was held in the Ventana Wilderness, one of the most rugged and steep areas of the 220-mile Los Padres National Forest, said Kathy Good, a park public-affairs officer.

Each spring, about half a dozen student groups hike in the forest’s Monterey County section, which includes the Ventana, she said.

“We have more reports of people injuring themselves in Ventana than anywhere else,” she said. “A little misstep can result in tragedy.”

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