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The sound of the fire alarm pierced the charred hills above Malibu High School, pictured Nov. 11, but all the district’s Malibu buildings are largely unharmed. SMMUSD aims to reopen Malibu schools Monday, Nov. 26, but facilities will first need to undergo an extensive cleanup. Photos by Suzy Demeter/22nd Century Media
A number of construction trailers and buildings were destroyed on Morning View Drive, but the permanent buildings were left in good condition.
Michele Willer-Allred, Freelance Reporter
8:46 am PST November 16, 2018

Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District officials have assessed the damage at Malibu schools and are reporting that there is “no apparent damage” from the fires to any of the permanent buildings on any of the campuses.

“That is something to be very, very happy and thankful for because, in particularly around Malibu High School, Juan Cabrillo and Point Dume [elementary schools], many, many homes were lost and all the hillsides in those areas were rather badly charred,” Carey Upton, the district’s chief operations officer, said at a Thursday, Nov. 15 Board of Education meeting.

A “rather substantial cleanup” of all the campuses is necessary, and the district wants to make sure all facilities are safe before classes resume there. The cleanup of the campuses is expected to start once evacuation orders are lifted and electricity is restored, officials said.

Superintendent Ben Drati said the district is optimistic about reopening its campuses by Monday, Nov. 26.

“Our hearts go out to the families in these tragic events in Malibu and also the neighboring communities,” Drati said.

“We know that a lot of our family members and a lot of our staff have lost property,” he said. “Some properties are completely destroyed. Some are unlivable.”

Upton said he received permission twice during the week by Malibu City officials to be escorted by police onto the campuses along with a team of staff to assess the damage.

“Up until that time, we heard various reports — some good, some bad, some troublesome — of the condition of the schools,” Upton said. “So, it was very helpful to take the facility team up.”

He said the slopes and hillsides surrounding the Malibu High School campus were “completely charred,” and a number of construction trailers and buildings were destroyed on nearby Morning View Drive.  

Upton credited firefighters with saving permanent buildings and new construction from being damaged at MHS.  

While there was no damage to athletic fields and courts at MHS, Upton said the campus pool is filled with soot and ash and will require a “rather deep restoration.” 

On the Cabrillo campus, Upton said the smell of smoke and ash collection in classrooms varied from “faint” to “more substantial” depending on if windows were left open.

No substantial fire damage of any kind was found on the Point Dume campus, even though the fire damaged many homes in the surrounding neighborhood.

There also was no fire damage reported at Webster Elementary, where electricity and water were already restored.

Upton said Gary Bradbury, the district’s risk management specialist, also analyzed the school sites and determined a top-to-bottom, full cleanup of all the campuses was needed, including pressure washing the outside surfaces and cleaning the air.  

Air tests are to be completed to make sure there is no contamination at the schools.

Upton said the cleanup is a “rather substantial process” which could take time and could impact when schools actually open.

“Overall, we’re very relieved that our properties, buildings and schools can be open significantly sooner than if we would’ve had major losses,” Upton said.

Resources for students 

School officials said they are working with a “high degree of flexibility” with assignments and grades for Malibu students, and looking to offer independent study programs and remote and online learning options for those displaced by the fires.

Displaced families also have the option of resuming their children’s education at any of the district’s schools in Santa Monica, or they can attend school at neighboring school districts.

College and career guidance will be available to Malibu students at Olympic High School in Santa Monica. College application extensions have been given by University of California and Cal State University campuses.

The district has no plans to extend the school year to make up for missed time, but they are looking to possibly extend the first semester for Malibu students.

Tara Brown, the district’s director of student services, said a number of various counseling and emotional services through various organizations also are available to Malibu students and their families.

Brown said many Santa Monica school campuses have organized drives and collections to help Malibu residents.

“Our Santa Monica schools and our students’ hearts are breaking for the situation in Malibu and they want to help,” Brown said.

Gail Pinsker, SMMUSD’s community and public relations officer, said it is important for people to ensure that charities they plan to donate to are legitimate.

Pinsker said there is an information box with the latest information and links to resources for Malibu students and their families at the top of www.smmusd.org, and also at each Malibu school website.  

Also available on those websites are surveys for all impacted families and school staff to fill out. Drati said the district is collecting this information in an effort to better understand current needs.