Updated at 5:05 p.m. Saturday
With Facebook postings and storefront fliers, supporters of the marching band at Helix Charter High School this weekend were sounding an alarm about the program’s fate in the wake of neighbor complaints and police visits.
Lisa Moya, president of the band boosters, wrote a letter being distributed via email and social media that tells of verbal clashes and repeated complaints from two residents near Helix—saying the band, with its loud metronome, is “disturbing the peace.”
“If we are forced to cancel outdoor rehearsals and classes, then the marching band as we know it will cease to exist,” Moya wrote.
The band includes the well-known bagpipe unit, where Highlander students wear traditional Scottish kilts. The pipe band performs at community events outside school as well.
Saturday morning, three freshmen band members distributed fliers to stores in The Village, said Cori Garrod, the mother of one of the musicians. They made their way up La Mesa Boulevard from about 10:30 a.m. to noon, she said.
Garrod said the electronic metronome—an amplified device that sounds out a beat for bands to learn their field show routines—is “not an unusual choice” for high schools.
In her letter, Moya called for an outpouring of community and alumni support for the band. She announced a meeting at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 31, at the Helix football stadium.
But late Saturday afternoon—after Moya spoke with Helix Executive Director Rani Goyal and band director Mitchell Way—the community meeting was called off.
Said Way: “After speaking with our administration today, as well as Art Madrid, the mayor of La Mesa, we are postponing this public meeting until we have met with Helix administration and established an internal and unified course of action between Helix and HIMA [the band boosters].
“We are going to be researching our rights as a public institution to conduct business as usual for a school during reasonable hours, and the administration has already begun filing for specific associated noise permits to back up whatever else may already be on the books to support us.”
Way, a band director in Nashville for four years before moving to San Diego County, said everyone would be informed of the outcome of those efforts.
He also provided details on one of the complaining neighbors. Way said the man who confronted him at practice said he was a lawyer whose live-in father has Stage 4 cancer and who objected to the metronome.
When Way told the man that he was sorry, and that the metronome wouldn’t be needed much longer, “That wasn’t what he wanted to hear.”
Garrod, the band parent, said leaders don’t know the names of the two neighbors who have made what Moya said are sometimes daily complaints about the Helix band.
In her letter, Moya wrote:
Some of you may have heard about an incident that occurred at the football field one evening during band camp. A gentleman who lives next to the school approached [band director Mitchell] Way while he was conducting the band. What started out as a seemingly innocent inquiry about our rehearsal methods and use of the metronome soon escalated into a verbal attack against Mr. Way.
The gentleman not only used abusive, threatening and vulgar language in front of our students but [threatened] to conduct a citizen’s arrest. Shortly after, the police arrived at the football field and instructed the directors to stop band practice due to a complaint from one of the neighbors.
A week earlier, Moya said, the band had been informed by school administrators that evening practices had to end at 8:45 instead of 9 “because of numerous noise complaints from neighbors.”
In the past four weeks, said the letter posted Friday, the police have come to the band office at least four times.
“With each visit, there is a new complaint against our program,” she wrote. “First it was the evening practices and the use of the metronome, then fourth-period marching band. Now it’s percussion class, pipes and cymbal noise. Each time we rehearse outside, they file a complaint.”
La Mesa police weren’t available for comment, but Moya said police “revealed that there are now two neighbors who call in on an almost daily basis to complain about the noise,” saying residents have found a loophole in the law.
“Their complaints are not for ‘noise ordinance,’ which has limitations on volume and hours, but rather ‘disturbing the peace,’ which does not have these restrictions,” she said.
According to a Patch review of police reports, officers were sent to the 7323 University Ave. campus at least twice in recent weeks, including at 2:33 p.m. Aug. 15 (a Monday) and 2:49 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 25. Both were for disturbing the peace.
Helix senior Trevyn Langsford, 17, a drum major, said he witnessed the argument in the stands between band director Way and one complaining neighbor at a Wednesday night practice.
Police have interrupted nighttime band practice at least three times to ask that the metronome be turned off, Trevyn said. He said the band resumed drill practice with a snare drummer providing cadence.
At least once, officers told Helix band officials that a citizen’s arrest had been requested, Trevyn said Saturday afternoon. In three visits, only one officer came. But once, he said, three officers came to the school as a result of noise complaints.
Booster president Moya worried about the prospect of lawsuits, and wrote: “You can imagine how upsetting and disruptive these complaints and visits from the police have become. The staff and students should not be subjected to this type of harassment simply for trying to play music.”
She wrote supporters: “We have tried to accommodate all the requests/restrictions they have placed on us, but when are we suppose to rehearse? We want to be able to practice without the fear of confrontations with irate neighbors, visits from police and pressure toward our school administration. … We can’t let them damage a program that has been around for over 60 years!”
Bonnie Stinchcomb, a late 1980s graduate of Helix, sent email to fellow Helix alum Mark Arapostathis, the city councilman:
I want you and City Council to be aware that Helix High is not only suffering thru the recent economic crisis, past teacher-student sex scandals, etc., but now they are having to deal with complaints from neighbors that the band is too “loud.”
This is ridiculous. Of course the Band is loud—LOUD and PROUD! A band cannot possibly be quiet. When I was younger, we lived about three blocks away (on Princeton Avenue) and the sound of the band practices, the music during the Friday night football games … rose up the hill to us and it was lovely.
Helix has never hidden that they have a band, nor should they have to. The band kids are always good kids; the ones who study well, get good grades and make lifelong friends thru band. Band teaches responsibility, dedication, school spirit and that teamwork pays off. They should not have to deal with neighbors who have nothing better than complain.
Anything you can do to continue your support of arts in our schools (what little is left) would be greatly appreciated.
Word of the Helix noise issue quickly spread through the Internet starting with a Facebook posting Friday night.
Saturday afternoon at Hooley’s pub in Grossmont Center, Garrod told a football team booster event—a fundraiser hoping to raise $2,500—about the noise issue and distributed her flier (see attached).
Jacqueline Shannon, another Helix band supporter, wrote La Mesa Patch with the Moya letter attached.
“I live in this neighborhood and am dismayed about the noise complaints,” Shannon wrote. “I feel the same way I do about the complainers who live in Lindbergh’s flight path—you knew about this before you moved in.”
Garrod, the band parent, said: “We got a lot of positive comments from the community” as the teens handed out the flier on La Mesa Boulevard. She stressed that she produced the handout “acting as concerned citizens.”
She and the students “took it upon ourselves to get the word out,” she said. “This flier wasn’t created by HIMA, but in response to Lisa’s call to get the word out” on the now-canceled stadium meeting.
In a phone interview, Garrod said: “Helix people are so passionate about their school—once a Scottie, always a Scottie.”
In May, second-year band director Way wrote parents about belt-tightening in the storied program as fewer parents make donations.
“[Associate director Michael] Benge and I operated this year on a VERY bare bones budget, cutting staff down to three … and we still have had a hard time meeting our needs,” Way wrote.
Way, who briefly was Grossmont High School band director, is the latest successor to 14-year Helix band director Russ Sperling, who moved to Grossmont College and a job in the San Diego city schools.
In a phone interview, Way said: “We all joke about how noxious the [metronome] sound is,” but he’s never had a complaint about it before.