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Around the South Bay

Relocation of Preschool Reveals a Climate of Fear

April 11, 1985|DEAN MURPHY | Times Staff Writer

When Betty Schweisthal wrote to the Redondo Beach Planning Department last month about her application to move her Hermosa Beach preschool to a vacant church in Redondo, she closed with the words, "We are not a destructive force."

This week, when Redondo Beach City Councilman Archie Snow learned that Schweisthal intended to relocate the preschool today, he criticized city officials for not exerting greater control over preschools and threatened to delay or block the move.

Schweisthal's awkward assurance and Snow's glaring distrust illustrate two aspects of the child-abuse phenomenon that have extended far beyond the South Bay cities and preschools directly involved in child molestation charges.

For Schweisthal, a lay Franciscan who has run St. Clare's Family Care Center in Hermosa Beach for two years, the suspicion and scrutiny surrounding her move to Redondo Beach have been traumatic.

"This is a crushing blow," the Rolling Hills Estates grandmother said this week. "It is paranoia--almost a witch hunt."

But for Snow and other Redondo Beach city officials, the relocation of a preschool from Hermosa Beach to their city is legitimate cause for concern, they said. St. Clare's is the first preschool to move to Redondo from a neighboring beach city since child molestation charges were filed last year against owners of the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach, city officials said.

Since then, several preschools in Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach have been closed by the state and investigated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Just last week, officials at the St. Cross Pre-School in Hermosa Beach extended Easter vacation by one week to allow sheriff's investigators to intensify an inquiry into allegations of abuse there.

"With all of these incidents happening in other communities around us, naturally we are going to be more careful," Snow said. "I don't want to inconvenience anybody, I just want to strengthen the city's position."

Concerned about the move, Snow last week appealed a Planning Commission decision that granted St. Clare's a permit to operate a day nursery in the former Latter-day Saints church at Broadway and Emerald Street.

The permit, approved by the commission March 21, had been recommended by Planning Department officials, who described the location in staff documents as "ideally suited" for the preschool.

City Manager Timothy Casey, moreover, said checks into St. Clare's operation in Hermosa Beach found a "very clean bill of health." City officials, he said, confirmed that the preschool was moving only because the Monterey Boulevard school it rented from the Hermosa Beach City School District had been sold.

Letters from parents of several of the 65 children attending the preschool praised it as one of the few remaining schools in the South Bay where they would leave their children.

Snow was not satisfied. At Monday's City Council meeting, he asked City Atty. Gordon Phillips to review state laws governing preschools and to determine whether the city could become more involved in screening the schools, their employees and their methods of operation. Among other things, Snow proposed joint Planning Commission and City Council hearings on preschool applications.

Mayor Barbara J. Doerr echoed Snow's concerns about preschools coming into the city, and chastised the city staff for not providing the City Council with more information about the St. Clare's application before the school's move today.

"We are all concerned about this situation," she said. "If there had been some action earlier, we wouldn't be in this situation tonight."

With St. Clare's facing eviction from its Hermosa Beach building today, Phillips moved quickly on Snow's request. Schweisthal and her attorney, John Frances Carroll, provided the city with copies of state codes governing preschools and outlining extensive state licensing requirements.

Tuesday afternoon, Phillips advised Snow that the city was preempted by the state in regulating care and supervision at the preschool. But, he said, the city could ask the preschool to agree to other conditions.

In an agreement worked out by Phillips, Snow and representatives from the preschool, Snow withdrew his appeal of the Planning Commission decision in exchange for a guarantee from Schweisthal that city police, fire, building and planning officials could make unannounced inspections and visits.

Barring any other appeal, Schweisthal will begin moving her school this morning. Volunteers will mount 320 pickets on a fence around the new playground this weekend, move recreation equipment, toys and learning materials, and, they hope, open the preschool's doors to children on Monday.

"I think people in Redondo Beach are very much afraid right now," Schweisthal said, reflecting on the last-minute scrutiny her application received. "They are afraid of what has happened in the two other beach communities."

Resigned to the pending inspections, Schweisthal said the preschool had no choice. "I don't know what else we can do," she said. "It is either dying or going on with these inspections."

This column was written by Times Staff Writer Dean Murphy.

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