Last Tuesday, just two days before classes resumed at public schools across Malibu, school superintendent Sandra Lyon sent out a back-to-school letter to parents and staff which dealt with two highly controversial topics around town.

The first was the letter’s detailed description of efforts made by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) to remove “verified” samples of PCBs (toxic building materials found in some Malibu schools). This was met with the anticipated skepticism among groups who mistrust the SMMUSD handling of the situation.

The reaction to the second may have surprised Lyon.

“If you visited Malibu High School over the summer, you may have noticed an issue with gophers and squirrels including dangerous holes in some of the fields. We understand the safety and health issues these rodents present and we are working quickly to resolve this problem. We will inform parents of our plans prior to these efforts,” the letter briefly stated. The district settled on the use of strychnine and fumitoxin to poison the rodents. 

Then the firestorm began.

“As you well know, the City Council unanimously supported a statement against the use of rodenticides and other poisons for pest control in the city,” reads an email sent last week from Malibu Mayor John Sibert to Lyon and shared with The Malibu Times. 

“To have the school district ignore these efforts and plan an extensive fumigation and poison program on the MHS fields, particularly during the school year when they are in use, is extremely disturbing,” the letter continued. “I hope you would hold off on this and consider other alternatives. The city and, I’m sure, Poison Free Malibu is willing to help. Let me know if you are willing to consider other options.”

SMMUSD Board Member Craig Foster tried to find compromise among parents and the district in a letter he sent to concerned parents and community members, also shared with The Malibu Times.

“I expect that all of us share two beliefs. First, we believe that our children should be free to play on our schools’ fields, safe from pest-related injury. Second, we believe that our pest management should be mindful and honor the delicate nature of our shared ecosystem,” Foster’s letter stated. “I am not happy that the treatment is going ahead and I know I am far from alone in my upset. However, given where we are right now, I believe this is the choice that best meets all of our responsibilities.”

A similar message was shared Monday in a statement that went out to Malibu parents and local media from district spokespeople.

“In this situation, the gopher infestation, damage to play fields and risk to students was great enough to warrant a serious approach,” the statement read. “District administration and the Board of Directors agreed that this issue needed immediate attention to prevent student and spectator injury on our playing fields.”

Sibert wasn’t buying it.

“The reports we were getting was an infestation of gophers,” Sibert said at Monday’s City Council meeting. “Well, gophers are solitary, folks. You don’t get an ‘infestation’ of gophers.

“It’s amazing to me the district doesn’t recognize this.”

According to statements made at the meeting, the district was not sympathetic with Sibert’s suggestion of working with the City of Malibu and local nonprofit Poison Free Malibu to find another solution. This sparked anger from several city officials.

“I didn’t get a satisfactory response,” Sibert told council Monday. “We really do need our own school district.”

This was a call echoing Council Members Skylar Peak and Laura Rosenthal, who also pointed to the Santa Monica-based district’s handling of the pest situation as a clear sign they don’t understand Malibu values.

“I really think this is another reason for people to sign [a petition calling for district separation] because with our own district, this wouldn’t be happening,” Peak said.

Editor's note: A board discussion to review the district's pest management policy has been scheduled for the Sept. 17 SMMUSD Board of Education meeting in Santa Monica.

(8) comments

Donna Denham

Using such highly poisonous chemicals in school is dangerous. To prevent the rodents, schools can also call pest control services which provides protection against rodents also or you can also take help from pest exterminator Mount Kisco NY experts.

Steve Woods

Malibu High School, and all of Malibu, is located within the boundaries of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. National Park Service parkland is located less than a mile away from the campus. This school is also right next to a Marine Protected Area and an area of special biological significance where ground water will wash toxic poisons into
A pocket gopher, blissfully unaware that it is the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District's Undesirable No. 1 and will be gassed out of existence using the WW I-style warfare overkill approach to pest management.
You might think that the City of Malibu's resolution opposing the use of dangerous and deadly rodenticides and the fact the municipality is in the process of developing a citywide rodenticide ban like the one recently approved for the Santa Monica Mountains in unincorporated Los Angeles County would be enough to convince the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District that the pest management version of carpet bombing might not be the best approach for its schools, but it wasn't.
The same school district that has been in hot water over its attempt to sweep epic levels of PCB contamination at Malibu High School under the rug, decided to use Fumitoxin—pellets of aluminum phosphide that combine with moisture to release deadly phosphine gas, to kill a few gophers.
This pesticide was applied just days before students and teachers arrived on campus for the fall semester. It's a blanket nuke-everything approach, instead of the targeted pest management plan the district is suppose to be responsible for developing and following.
Written in 2011 an article in the Malibu Surfside News on pesticide use at Malibu High School, it's discouraging to have to quote it again, four years later:
The EPA has placed [Aluminum phosphide] in its highest toxicity category. As a restricted use pesticide, it can be used by certified personnel only. According to the manufacturer’s description, the compound converts to a deadly phosphine gas when it comes in contact with moisture, eventually degrading into inorganic phosphate, which is not toxic to humans but is a groundwater contaminant and contributes to ocean water quality degradation.
According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report published in 1997, aluminum phosphate has been found to eliminate certain species of ground squirrel, but that “burrowing fumigants will kill animals residing in treated burrows, so it is important to verify that burrows are occupied by target animals. Animals potentially affected by primary poisoning include nontarget rodents, burrowing owls, reptiles and amphibians, rabbits, raccoons, fox, weasel and skunk.”
The EPA lists all organophosphates, including aluminum phosphide, as “acutely toxic to bees, wildlife, and humans.” Recent studies suggest a possible link to adverse effects in the neurobehavioral development of fetuses and children, even at low levels of exposure.
In 2010, Fumitoxin caused the death of a four-year-old girl and her 15-month-old sister in Utah, after the fumigant leaked into the basement of the girls’ home. The rodenticide was applied by an exterminator to treat the family’s lawn for gophers. The toxic fumes were spread throughout the house by the air conditioning.
A letter sent to Malibu parents indicates that the district also authorized the use of strychnine, a poison that has no antidote—which is why it's popular with mystery writers and real life murderers—and a reputation for decimating wildlife. It is a well-documented frequent cause of secondary poisoning in cats and dogs, and species like coyotes and bobcats.
Parents, community members, and activists—including volunteers from Poison Free Malibu, rushed to protest. The district successfully headed off the opposition by arranging for the pesticides to be applied two hours before the stated time.
Then, in the words of the Malibu Times, "the firestorm began."
The article quotes a letter from Malibu Mayor John Sibert:
“As you well know, the City Council unanimously supported a statement against the use of rodenticides and other poisons for pest control in the city,” reads an email sent last week from Malibu Mayor John Sibert to [SMMUSD Superintendent Sandra Lyon] and shared with The Malibu Times.
“To have the school district ignore these efforts and plan an extensive fumigation and poison program on the MHS fields, particularly during the school year when they are in use, is extremely disturbing,” the letter continued. “I hope you would hold off on this and consider other alternatives. The city and, I’m sure, Poison Free Malibu is willing to help. Let me know if you are willing to consider other options.”
Apparently, the district wasn't willing.
The only Malibu resident on the SMMUSD board, Craig Foster, "tried to find compromise among parents and the district," according to The Malibu Times. Here's a quote:
“I expect that all of us share two beliefs. First, we believe that our children should be free to play on our schools’ fields, safe from pest-related injury. Second, we believe that our pest management should be mindful and honor the delicate nature of our shared ecosystem. I am not happy that the treatment is going ahead and I know I am far from alone in my upset. However, given where we are right now, I believe this is the choice that best meets all of our responsibilities.
According to the EPA, aluminum phosphide can contribute to ocean water degradation. These sea lions got a second chance at life at the California Wildlife Center during the recent sea lion mortality event. Marine mammals like these face enough challenges without having to deal with the SMMUSD's toxins entering the water at Zuma, which is a Marine Protected Area. Enough is enough.
Rachel Carson famously wrote:
“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”
It may be the road less traveled, but it doesn't mean we have to walk it alone. The school district is being offered every kind of assistance and support to make the transition to a less toxic lifestyle for our teachers, our children, and our community. The mayor, the Malibu City Council, and city staff are willing to help, so is Poison Free Malibu. There are no excuses left for not owning up to the challenge and becoming responsible Malibu residents like the rest of us try to be.
The attitude that Malibu is some sort of rebel colony that has to be run with an iron hand is just as antiquated as the district's pesticide policy. It's time for both attitudes to be revised, and it would be nice if one of the things the people in charge of our children's education could learn is compassion for all life. A little environmental science wouldn't hurt either. It isn't 1950 any more.
“If, having endured much, we have at last asserted out "right to know," and if by knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.”
—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
Researched in an article by Suzanne Guldimann

Angela Cancilla Herschel

I am so surprised and disappointed that the school did not research and went ahead and used the chemical rodent poison all around the school
SECONDARY POISONING" is unconscionable.
and only backfires as the deaths of all the owls, hawks, falcons, coyotes, fox, ringtails, skunks, etc. ...yes and even cougars ....who will be killed eating the dying prey ....only allows the rodent problem to be able to multiply unchecked and explode .

Angela Cancilla Herschel

The sheer number of raptors, and all other predatory animals that the Wildlife Center in Malibu has to try and save from "secondary" poisoning (by eating poisoned prey "mice etc") is unconscionable.

Candace Brown

I am speechless.
But thank you, John Sibert.

Dani Sue

Sad decision. The entire food chain is affected with the use of rodenticides. Mange in mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes is proof. Fumigants have killed humans in close proximity and we are using them at our schools?

There are other options for gophers such as traps and a good control company can rid an area of gophers in a couple of days.

And to Sibert, yes, gophers do live solidarity in their tunnels but a burrow can cover anywhere from 200 to 2000 feet and an acre of land can support a density of 60 or more. Maybe they should have thought of this before the start of school? It's a lot easier to control one or two instead of waiting until the populations build.

BS F

Below are reasons why another petition should be started against the SMMUSD's Superintendent Sandra Lyon.

IT’S TIME TO FIRE THE SANTA MONICA MALIBU UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT’S SUPERINTENDENT SANDRA LYON

https://lawofficesofbarryfagan.wordpress.com/2015/07/04/it-is-time-to-fire-the-santa-monica-malibu-unified-school-districts-superintendent-sandra-lyon/

Steve Woods

The few gophers that have burrowed holes on the high school fields could have easily been remedied by non poisonous methods . Craig Foster was offered by a company (Naturecide ) that specializes in natural non poison solutions willing to do this for free but instead chose to inject more poisons into the soils at a great cost to the tax payers , risk to the children and the red tail Hawk that was seen perched above the high school fields on the day of the fuma-ciding .
No wonder more and more parents are taking their kids out of school

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