'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, April 25, 2008

A Day in the Life of Zachary Cataldo 

Rarely does one come across an article that encapsulates so much of the challenging reality of American family life. The victim, Zachary Caltado, a first grade student at Piedmont Avenue Elementary School in Oakland, suffered a skull fracture after being attacked while waiting for his day care provider after school:

Zachary's father, Anthony Cataldo, is a single father who works as a receiver at a Safeway store in Oakland and has had to take the week off to be with his son.

"We're covering for his salary," said Isaias Dominguez, the store's assistant manager. "We have about 200 employees, and everyone is contributing so he doesn't get penalized for being out.

"I found out what happened this morning, and it's extremely horrible. (Zachary) is a nice kid. A really nice kid."

Zachary was standing in front of the school waiting for a ride on Monday afternoon when, as he tells it, "a fifth-grader picked me up, and he body-slammed me into a tree."

His father said Piedmont Avenue Elementary lacks adult supervision before and after school. That was confirmed Wednesday by Denise Saddler, an administrator with the Oakland Unified School District, who said that at elementary schools throughout the district, only students enrolled in special programs receive supervision.

Assemblyman Gene Mullin, a South San Francisco Democrat who heads the Assembly's Education Committee, said Thursday that he will consider whether a "safe-zone requirement" is needed in state law that would require schools to supervise children for a reasonable period before and after school.

"The fact that they have no adult supervision is troubling, quite frankly," Mullin said. "And if there's a reasonable expectation that youngsters could be in harm's way, it would seem that the school district has some responsibility."

At Piedmont Avenue Elementary, where records show that 97 of the school's 344 children were suspended for violent incidents last school year - nine of which involved weapons - school officials acknowledged that children could be in harm's way.

Saddler said Wednesday that district officials are well aware of the danger.

"We monitor the data regularly," she said. "It's a major concern."

The incident that sent Zachary to the hospital was the third time he had been assaulted at Piedmont Avenue Elementary, his father said.

When Zachary was in kindergarten last year, an older boy spun him around and then let go, the elder Cataldo said. Zachary lost four front teeth and suffered a large red laceration on his chin, a photo shows.

Three months ago, a student kicked Zachary in the stomach, his father said, adding that his complaints apparently fell on deaf ears.

Other parents also are angry about violence at Piedmont Avenue Elementary, according to reviews of the school posted on www.greatschools.net.

"Piedmont has a lot of bullying and violence - my daughter has been a victim on many occasions," an unnamed reviewer wrote in July, adding that it was frustrating that school officials have done little to stop the violence.

Wrote another reviewer: "Bullying and violence is a constant issue."

Meanwhile, Cataldo said school officials did little to protect Zachary after each bullying incident. He said his son recently confided that he'd changed his behavior after being kicked in the stomach this winter.

"Zachary told me that for some time, he'd have to hide in the bushes waiting for his day care provider" after school, Cataldo said. "This really broke my heart."

As police investigate the case, which began with a hospital-room interview of Zachary on Tuesday morning, Cataldo has mixed feelings about the fate of the boy he believes slammed Zachary against a tree.

"Of course I'm mad," Cataldo said, adding that the same boy had tripped a girl from Zachary's day care several months ago. When the girl asked why he'd tripped her, "He punched her in the eye," Cataldo said.

"Obviously, someone's hurting him," said Cataldo, suggesting that any child who goes around hurting other children may be a victim of abuse himself.

"Of course I feel bad, but he hurt my only son. And I'm afraid he's going to hurt someone even more seriously. It's a delicate situation. I definitely believe his parents need to be involved."

Piedmont Avenue Elementary appears to be a school of last resort in the Oakland district, one where your child ends up if you are still standing when the music stops. Once there, getting your child transferred to a safer school is about as probable as escaping a French tropical penal colony.

After all, if school district officials transfer your child, how can they explain not transferring the other 247 students with no record of violence? Of course, as previously reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the district is now willing to consider whether Zachary should be transferred after Cataldo sought legal representation.

Meanwhile, the state of California is facing a budget deficit in excess of 10 billion dollars, so any solution will require that the parents of the children at Piedmont Avenue Elementary and throughout the Oakland school district organize themselves to protect their children. And, in the meantime, we should all ponder what we could do with all that money being spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. Provide funding for school districts to hire security for when the school day ends? Provide resources so that violent children can be encouraged to promptly change their behavior or be removed from schools where they prey upon others? Just a thought.

It is, however, the social dimension of this article that is most compelling, Anthony Cataldo, a single father who works for Safeway, trying to raise his young son as best he can, saddened to hear his son describe how he hides while waiting after school for his day care provider. Despite the attack, Cataldo refuses to demonize the perpetrator, recognizing the possibility that it may be indicative of a broader pattern of abuse.

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