Reacting to Guns at Berkeley High

Some students and progressives warn that a campus lockdown, more cops, and visible student IDs may backfire.

Between January 10 and March 25, students brought four guns onto the Berkeley High School campus. An Oakland Technical High School student also had a gun on the perimeter of the campus, and a student was found with a gun at B-Tech, Berkeley’s continuation school. In response, some community members have demanded more stringent controls, from locking down the fourteen-acre, 3,300-student campus to installing metal detectors, requiring visible student IDs, and ratcheting up police presence.

But others in this famously progressive community, including student leaders, are concerned about overreacting. They’re calling for modest security enhancements, while emphasizing the need to provide help for students at risk for academic and social failure. “If you look at a disease in the body, it’s very rare that it’s the disease that harms the person; it’s the immune system’s response to it,” school board student representative Lias Djili cautioned. “Our overreaction can end up hurting more than it helps.”

Student leader Ashley Webster, a member of a newly formed district-wide safety committee, criticized the adults who reacted as if students brought weapons on campus with the intent to kill. “It’s not a Columbine incident,” she said. “We have to remember that these students are members of our Berkeley High community. If they feel unsafe, there is a reason why they feel unsafe. And it’s our job at the school to make them feel safe when they come here. And give them opportunities — not just to throw these kids in jail.”

Part of the blame should be laid at the school district door, said Michael Smith, pastor at South Berkeley’s McGee Avenue Baptist Church and recreation director at the city-run Young Adult Project. “Much of the faculty at Berkeley High and much of the school board has never wanted to see the school as an urban high school,” he said. “They wanted to see it as kind of a suburban high school in an urban area.”

Smith argues that the that the school needs to take an honest look at itself and focus on prevention. That may mean providing “wrap-around” services for young people identified as being at risk. It’s no secret who these young people are — they’re known through the probation and police departments and the school, he said. Smith doesn’t see identifying kids in need as punitive, but as a way to direct intensive services. “You’ve got to have somebody engaged in a level of case management that follows the kid and to some degree the parent,” Smith said. “It’s costly; that’s part of the problem.”

But the cost of prevention is less than the $248,000 annual price-tag for locking up a teen at the California Youth Authority, or a $250,000-five-day hospital stay from a gunshot wound, said DeVone Boggan, a nationally recognized expert in anti-violence programs and the head of Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety. Boggan created a Richmond program that serves men identified by police, the probation department, and the FBI as the most likely in the city to kill and be killed. The program, funded by the city and grants, provides intense case management so that, for example, a case worker not only tells participants where they can get job training, but takes them there. But it’s not just about services; it’s creating relationships. “These men are dying, literally, for a relationship,” Boggan said.

Youth “don’t want to have to carry guns to school,” he continued, addressing the Berkeley schools issue. “They’re tired. They’re worn out. They want peace. They just don’t know how to get it and don’t know who to ask to help them to get it.” The school can intervene, he added, “by looking more closely at who the kids that are most likely bringing guns to school are … and developing relationships with these young people, and helping them to feel like they’re more protected.”

Irma Parker, parent liaison at Berkeley High, has been trying to get grants for mentoring programs that would create healthy relationships between troubled students and adults. Speaking for herself and not as a school employee, Parker said Berkeley High’s priorities are geared toward college-bound students. They get special tutoring, for example, while there is little for those who are at risk of getting in trouble. These students need to learn something about their self worth, she said; they need someone “to teach them about their God-given potential.”

Webster, who’s headed to New York University next year, also thinks more should be done for students at risk. She said they often feel alienated at Berkeley High. “Kids all need a place to feel happy and excited … [that] their lives are worth living,” she said.

So far, the school district has made incremental security improvements on campus, while looking at long-range solutions. It has changed safety officer assignments so that out-of-the way areas can be more frequently observed, and has hired additional security staff and scheduled enhanced training. The police officer stationed at Berkeley High is now there five days a week, and the school has instituted an anonymous tip line at 1-866-SPEAKUP, and contracted with Napa-based Edu-Safe Associates to do a security assessment.

In a memo to the school superintendent, Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said he would like to see tougher measures. His recommendations include locking down the campus at lunch for younger students and eventually for all students during the school day, and better training and greater visibility for security staff, who “should be equipped in a manner that allows them to maintain control of situations, particularly those where dangerous weapons may be involved … [and minimally] trained and equipped with either handcuffs or plastic flexcuffs.” The police chief would like to see five-day-a week coverage of police officers at the high schools and middle schools and recommends requiring students to wear visible identification in both middle and high school.

Webster, however, called the idea of a completely closed campus and mandatory ID badges “ridiculous” and contrary to the openness that is the hallmark of Berkeley High. However, she said she would like to see a locked-down campus during school hours, with an open campus at lunchtime. And Parker said locking down the campus could backfire. “It could create a false sense of security,” she said.

Smith argued that real solutions will come only when the district changes. “You can talk about metal detectors all day; you can talk about everyone having uniforms and ID badges — there are arguments on both sides — but I believe that systemic change does not occur until you stop treating symptoms and start treating the root causes of the disease,” he said.

School Services Director Susan Craig has interviewed the young people allegedly involved in the gun incidents. While she said she’s unable to disclose the content of the interviews for reasons of confidentiality, she said she will compile information from these interviews, from student focus groups held on campus, and from experts to arrive at long-term solutions. “ID badges and more police officers don’t solve the underlying problem,” she said.

On the job for less than a year, Principal Pasquale Scuderi is navigating the prickly path between prevention and security, between fearful parents who want Berkeley High locked down and students who demand their freedom. “You want to create an environment that is safe and as secure as possible,” he said. “But you also want to consider school culture and school climate and not necessarily turn your campus into San Quentin or Pelican Bay because a few people made some horrible decisions.”


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