As Berkeley High students returned to school this week, they weren’t permitted to enter by the Allston Street door leading into the main office. Instead they were directed to a nearby gate.
“Visitors Entrance Only,” read the lettering on two new signs posted by the office. “Students Please Use the ‘A’ Gate.”
Five and a half months after two students discharged a gun in a portable bathroom, spooking students, parents, and administrators, change has come to Berkeley High. Access to the school now will be more closely monitored, school security officers will dress in uniform, there will be an increased police presence on campus, and students will be educated about the dangers of guns.
All of these items were part of the set of recommendations made in June by the Ad Hoc Safety Committee, a group of parents, teachers, and administrators that was given the task of determining how to improve safety in Berkeley schools. BUSD superintendent Bill Huyett appointed the group after six separate gun incidents in three months at Berkeley’s two high schools.
One of the main recommendations was to better control who was coming on and off the campus. This year, students will only be able to come onto campus by four doors. Visitors will be directed to go to the front office to sign in and get a visitors’ badge.
To get a handle on all the traffic – Berkeley High has more than 3,200 students and hundreds of teachers and administrators – the district hired four campus monitors to help out the school’s 12 safety officers. The campus monitors will sit by the entrances during the day to check IDs, prevent students from leaving while school is in session, and direct visitors around.
On Thursday morning, two hours after school started, Victor Trahan, whom the students call Coach T since he coaches the basketball team, was sitting on a chair by the “A” gate. As tardy students tried to enter the campus, he asked for their ID, or ID numbers, or waved them in if he recognized them. There was a walkie talkie nearby in case he had to connect with other monitors or one of the school’s 12 safety officers. In about a five-minute period he talked to three students.
Trahan was wearing a red fleece Berkeley High vest, but, in about a week, he will be wearing a new uniform. After the spate of gun incidents, the Berkeley Police Department recommended that school safety officers wear uniforms. It would give the safety officers more authority and let police officers arriving on any scene identify them easily, they said.
The new uniforms have a large, round logo on the back of the garment with a picture of the high school. The front of each garment has the wearer’s name and the school they represent. Each safety officer will get a jacket, three polo shirts, and three long-sleeve shirts, according to Susan Craig, the director of student services.
The color of the uniforms will be different at each school, said Craig. The uniforms at B-Tech are brown and the ones at Berkeley High are either white or black. The campus monitors will wear maroon, she said. The middle schools will have other colors, including blue and green, she said.
The jackets cost about $100 each and were paid from the student safety discretionary fund, said Craig. The district worked with the unions this summer to come up with a design all could agree on.
The safety officers “wanted to be visible, yet approachable,” said Craig. “They didn’t want something that said ‘School Security’ so that students wouldn’t approach them.”
Another major change for this school year is that the school district will report all robberies to the police, Craig told school and city officials at a “2 x 2 meeting” of city and school officials on Thursday morning. Previously, the district did not report robberies unless weapons or a sexual assault was involved. The school’s safety officers dealt with assailants through OCI, the On-Campus Intervention program.
In May, Berkeleyside reported on Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan’s frustration at the fact that the school was not reporting robberies.
That policy infuriated many parents, who felt the school district sometimes downplayed serious crime on campus. School safety officers often would identify culprits but focus on working with them to get on a better path rather than punishing them. When parents whose kids had been robbed or roughed up complained, they were often ostracized, making the victims of crime feel like they were being blamed.
“I am very happy that they have promised to report robberies to the police,” said Ginny Roemer, whose son was robbed last year at Berkeley High. Roemer filed a formal complaint against the district about the way the school investigated the incident. She wanted to know if the assailants were dangerous, but the district would not investigate whether they had any criminal records.
Roemer later found out one of the assailants had a warrant out for his arrest for committing another violent crime and the other robbed a different Berkeley High student right outside the school. “It’s the police who are able to investigate. They have the resources. They have access to the criminal records of the students.”
Laura Menard, a frequent critic of what she believes is the district’s tendency to worry more about the perpetrators than the victims, and turn away from dealing with violent culture, said reporting all robberies is long overdue.
“It’s gratifying that it’s finally happening because for all these years the victims of school-based crimes have faced discrimination,” said Menard. “We would go in there to meet with officials and would be further abused. The district didn’t want to admit it was discriminating against victims of crime.”
Read here for a list of all the recommendations made by the Ad Hoc Safety Committee.