Outdoor Program at Risk

Special To The Times

This city's reputation as a world-class tourist destination has long stood in opposition to the grimy realities of its City Hall politics and fractured school system.

Now, the deaths of two inner-city students on a wilderness outing in the Los Padres National Forest have not only given the school district another black eye, but also thrown into doubt the future of a program meant to give troubled city kids the survival skills to compete with their suburban counterparts.

The San Francisco Unified School District immediately canceled future back-country expeditions after the bodies of the two 17-year-old students were found at the bottom of a gorge Wednesday in back-country Monterey County. The district's Board of Education also announced it was reviewing the charter of the Urban Pioneer Experiential Academy that the two boys attended.

The incident is just the latest of several in which unsupervised students from the experimental school have gotten into trouble with authorities or found themselves in peril, according to school district officials.

It was reported that the two boys were camping with seven others two miles from the adults along on the trip to supervise them. The boys were allowed so far from supervisers as part of a test "to see if they could be trusted," according to investigators.

The Monterey County Sheriff's Department is continuing to classify the deaths of Vladislav Bogomolny and Mikhail Nikolov as suspicious. A coroner's investigation determined that the two 17-year-old campmates and friends died as a result of blunt force trauma from a 67-foot fall off a cliff near their campsite. The pair were drinking before their deaths, said sheriff's spokesman Bill Cassara.

Students from the alternative school the boys attended were on the 10th day of an 11-day "Outward Bound"-type wilderness survival trip when they apparently fell down a ravine to their deaths, said Cassara.

"Everything is consistent with falling from a cliff," said Cassara, adding: "We do believe they were drinking."

Investigators are now turning their attention to identifying and locating two strangers who reportedly wandered into the teens' campground the night before their deaths. Other campers reported that the two interlopers "carted in some hard alcohol," as the teens partied away the final night of the trip, Cassara said.

A total of 27 students from the San Francisco charter school were along on the camping trip when the two teens fell to their death.

"My son got killed," said a weeping Ina Bogomolny, a Russian Jewish emigre. "To me, he was the best boy on Earth. What more do you need to know from a mother who's lost her son?"

She added, "I do have some information but I can't release it. You're going to have to call the coroner's office."

Teenagers in San Francisco's close-knit Russian Jewish community "are obviously very upset," said Dr. Anita Friedman, executive director of Jewish Family and Child Services in the city.

Some 35,000 Russian Jews have emigrated to the Bay Area since 1979, primarily settling in the Richmond and Sunset neighborhoods of the city.

The two victims were among about 350 immigrant youths in Club Noon, the largest teenage emigre organization in the Bay Area. "They all know each other," Friedman said. "Many of them are very upset." Their deaths, she said, "are a loss to the entire community. This is very emotional, very tragic for the community."

The school attended by the two boys has been involved in previous controversies. In one, students who got lost set a fire in the wilderness so they would be rescued. Some students were also arrested at a logging protest on the North Coast.

Supt. Arlene Ackerman, in a report to the board in 2001, had recommended against granting a charter to the school, citing what she called "a pattern of serious incidents involving the safety of Urban Pioneer Program students."

Among other things, she cited an incident in October 1994 in which students and staff were caught in a blizzard without appropriate clothing or tents and had to be rescued by U.S. Forest rangers.

"The district no longer has confidence in the ability of the petitioners to successfully implement the safety provisions set forth in their charter petition," Ackerman wrote the board.

In its own report to the board, the program touted the students' accomplishments. It said 15 had been honored in a congressional awards program. Some students had helped build homes and schools with Habitat for Humanity in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Costa Rica and other countries. Students also created organic community gardens, the report said.

The board ultimately allowed the school to operate, based on assurances from school administrators that they had improved supervision and discipline.

Although district spokeswoman Gina Snow confirmed Thursday that the school board was taking a hard look at the charter school's operations, Snow said it was premature to say the board would shut down the campus.

Jill Winns, a board member, said that there are only a few ways to shut down a charter school, and that one of them is to determine that the education program is unsound.

"An education program that includes solo wilderness experience for high school kids is, in my opinion, unsound," she said.

Cassara said a cutting instrument was found at the campsite, but he said the autopsy performed Thursday showed no defensive wounds on the bodies.

But Cassara said there was no persuasive evidence that the boys, who spoke good English, were driven off the cliff. The trail they were on was narrow, it was a moonless night and neither had a flashlight. Both bodies were found in the same location, indicating they likely fell from the same spot.

The circumstances raised questions about how the students managed to invite outsiders into their camp and drink alcohol without adults noticing. The 27 students were divided into groups of nine, each of which camped together..

School officials said that over the first 10 days of the 11-day trip, the students had shown responsibility that encouraged their chaperons.

Thursday was chaotic as TV trucks encircled the campus in San Francisco's Presidio district and teachers waved off reporters. A candlelight memorial was held in the school and teachers were meeting individually with students. Besides the wilderness experience, the alternative school offers an unusual range of classes.

"They have a different way of teaching," said Joe Selva, 18, a senior. The focus is on "the outdoors, on real life stuff." The wilderness trips involve long hikes, climbing and instruction in how to read a map and compass. Students also do community service at homeless shelters.

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