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Cell Tower Concerns Rattle School Community

Parents at an Encinitas school were alarmed to learn there are more than a dozen cell towers near to their kids’ classrooms.

On a Thursday night early in January, about two dozen parents crowded into a room at the Cardiff public library. Many were asking questions like “do I take my kid to school on Monday?”

Parents at an Encinitas school were alarmed to learn there are more than a dozen cell towers near to their kids’ classrooms.

Photo by Kyla Calvert

The bell tower of the El Camino Christian Fellowship in Encinitas, Calif. houses a dozen cell phone transmitters. There are several other transmitters in the church parking lot.

Their children go to Julian Charter School’s Innovation Centre in Encinitas, which rents classrooms at the El Camino Christian Fellowship. Many of those classrooms are close to the church’s bell tower, where, parents learned this fall there are a dozen cell phone transmitters housed.

“In the playground and on the second floor it would be like this: position your kid next to the microwave oven in your kitchen and turn it on and have him stand, or her stand, or sit there for eight hours about a foot away,” said Michael Schwaebe, an independent consultant parents hired to measure the power of the tower’s radio frequency throughout the school.

Parents had until Monday to decide whether to take their kids back to school or forgo their spots at the small charter school. The levels of radio frequency are well within federal limits, but Swchaebe cautioned parents.

“The kinds of effects that we would expect over the long-term are to have effects of electric sensitivity for some of the students, their sleep, their ability to concentrate, their behavior would be affected. Their ability to learn,” he said.

Schwaebe offered parents at the meeting some unconventional suggestions for how they could counter the radio frequency waves penetrating their children’s school.

"There are subtle energies of the earth and colors and other things which are very beneficial -- blues and violets and ultra violets which counter the effect of electricity,” he said.

But Schwaebe isn’t the only one to have measured the signals the church’s cell towers emit. The towers belong to AT&T. A consultant hired by the company got measurements similar to Schwaebe’s. The difference in their reports -- the AT&T consultant used the standards set by the FCC to determine whether the radio frequency levels are safe and Schwaebe's report relied on thresholds set by a group of scientists who are part of a group called the Bioinitiaitve.

Pastor Larry Peltier leads El Camino Christian Fellowship and came to the parent meeting. He has never thought twice about the safety of the transmitters, which have been in the bell tower for about 15 years.

“I’m going by the FCC standards, which the whole country goes by. He has some other standards that he uses," he said. "His [Schwaebe's] science comes from what I consider a new age scientific philosophy and background. And you heard some of his comments in there. He can feel and sense and if we have the right colors and the right objects and he can balance nature. I don’t go along with that philosophy. I think it’s a little, a stretch of my imagination.”

But Schwaebe and parents like Alison Hardison note that countries like Russia, India and China allow just one percent of the radio frequency levels the FCC does as proof that their concerns are justified. Hardison was one of the first parents to pull her daughter out of the Innovation Centre.

“I just read the reports and for me, I’m not a scientist or anything, I just wanted to be safe than sorry," Hardison said. "So for me it was to leave the school, If she ever did get sick I know that I tried my best to keep her away from that environment.”

And parents like Nitya Rawal say they’re frustrated by what they see as a lack of responsiveness from the school administrators.

“We didn’t hear a formal apology or that they would try to do something with AT&T,” she said.

But Julian Charter School Director Jennifer Cauzza said she’s doing what she can.

“What parents would like is for me to find something today. And if I could find something today, I would,” she said.

Parents and Cauzza agree the cell tower worries are especially sad because families love the school. Its 125 students are in classes with about 20 students per teacher –- fewer than at traditional public schools in the area. Students attend school Monday through Thursday and work independently with their parents for the fifth school day.

But the unique school is squeezed into its third temporary home in four years at the church. A quick tour on a Friday when kids are at home includes a trip through the church office, stops in rooms that have no windows and a room that is shared with Bible study classes.

Cauzza runs more than a dozen Julian Charter School programs across San Diego and Riverside Counties and has faced obstacles finding facilities for many of them.

“Cost is probably number one," she said. "Being able to find a place that you can afford, then you have to go through the city to get the conditional use permits to be able to be there. Depending on how busy a city is it can take all the way up to 18 months. It took us 18 months in Temecula.”

Unlike public school districts which can issue bonds and tax property owners, charter schools have to use their state operating funds for facility costs. But Cauzza has recently found a bank willing to work with her to buy property for the schools-- a first. The Encinitas center could move into another new building next fall, if all goes according to plan.

“Which would give them room to grow, which would give them peace of mind. But there’s a cell tower there, too," Cauza said. "But not as strong as this one and so again, parents need to make the decision if they want to move there.”

Cauzza said so far about 10 students have left the school over concerns about the cell signals.

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