Is Berkeley High safe? Parents debate the question

Community theater at Berkeley High School. Note the cameras on the roof to film activity. Photos: Frances Dinkelspiel

In the middle of a meeting called to discuss guns and safety at Berkeley High School, the deputy district attorney in charge of Alameda County’s juvenile division stood up and announced that the community is not being realistic about how dangerous a place it is.

“I have seen the police report of every single person arrested at Berkeley High School this year,” Matthew Golde, the senior deputy district attorney for Alameda County’s juvenile justice center told a crowd of about 400 people at the Berkeley High School Community Theater. “Let me tell you the reality of the danger.”

Golde went on to say that in addition to the four gun-related arrests made last week, armed robbery is rampant at the school.  Students routinely bring weapons and use them to strong-arm people on campus, at the park across the street, and on Shattuck Avenue. And groups of BHS kids regularly burglarize houses.

“There are a lot of dangerous people here,” said Golde. “These guns are not being used just for protection. They are being used to commit crimes.”


Most damningly, Golde said there have been cover-ups of offenses. In one instance, there was a student who had a bench warrant out for his arrest for beating and robbing someone. Despite that, he attended classes at Berkeley High – and even beat up someone at the school. When police arrested him, “there were certain people in the school who tried to convince witnesses not to cooperate” said Golde.

The same thing happened with a football player who was arrested, said Golde. School officials, according to Golde, tried to encourage his friends from cooperating with the police so he could continue to play on the team.

Golde’s remarks were among the many shocking comments made at the meeting, which was billed as a chance for Berkeley Unified School District officials to hear the community’s reaction to a recent increase in guns on campus. In addition to four school board members, the school superintendent, the high school principal and the head of student services, two city councilmembers — Max Anderson and Laurie Capitelli — and a captain from the Berkeley police department attended the meeting.

While gun-related incidents at Berkeley High are not new, the sheer number this school year has prompted widespread concern. There were four gun-related arrests at or near Berkeley High last week on top of two earlier episodes in the school year. In addition, a student from B-Tech, the alternative high school, brought a gun on campus in early March. In October, a 17-year old Berkeley High student shot and killed 14-year old freshman Malik Grayson off campus. The 17-year old was expelled from school – as are all students caught with guns – but no charges have been filed against him, although police are still investigating the incident.

The marked increase in the number of guns on campus has prompted school officials to take steps to examine school policies and come up with a plan to improve school safety. In addition to hiring two additional safety officers, the school district is considering a number of ideas, including installing metal detectors, randomly searching lockers, and asking students to wear identification badges. Surveillance cameras are already ubiquitous on the campus.

The school board will hear a report on the issue Wednesday night and accelerate a plan to address the problem, Superintendent Bill Huyett told the crowd Monday night.


The discussion at the forum veered back and forth between parents who called for tighter safety measures and those who worried they would create an atmosphere of fear and could impinge on people’s civil liberties. A number of parents said the district needs to examine the pressures put on students that lead them to bring weapons to school.

One speaker, who identified herself as a senior at Berkeley High, said the school’s unlocked gates make it too easy for non-BHS kids to come onto campus and intimidate other kids. She recalled one time when there were two non-BHS kids sitting in one of her classes and, since the teacher that day was a substitute, it wasn’t noticed.

“A lot of students bring weapons on campus because they are fearful,” said the senior. “They are gang-related. They don’t feel safe on this campus because it’s too easy for people to come on this campus. Students don’t feel safe. If safety officers and teachers can’t protect them, then they are going to find a way to stay safe.”

Around 400 people attended the forum on weapons Monday night at Berkeley High

As the evening went on and more and more parents expressed their fears, some stepped up to say it was important to balance things. Most of the 3,300 students at Berkeley High obey the law.

“I don’t want to be overly-fear based, with our reactions,” said one parent. “I cringe when I hear metal detectors and keeping gates locked except during first period and lunch.”


“Those are guns in the hands of our children,” said another parent. “It’s not all about social issues. This is a school. That calls for metal detectors at every entrance and a closed campus.”

Throughout the night Pasquale Scuderi, the school principal, walked up and down the aisles of the Berkeley Community Theater to hand a microphone to parents so they could make remarks. In between questions, he took time to address some of the concerns that had been raised.

Scuderi took issue with Golde’s comments that BHS staff tried to steer students from testifying against students charged with a crime. That is not school policy and must have been a rogue staff member, he said.

BHS Principal Pasquale Scuderi

Scuderi also said that the school has worked with the police department to develop a plan in case someone starts shooting on the campus. In fact, the district and police department are working more closely than ever to address issues of safety on campus, he said.

The district is also reaching out to the community, since it is well documented that incidents of violence go down at schools that work closely with residents, said Huyett.

In fact, a number of people in the audience volunteered to spend time on campus to help keep an eye on things.

One speaker, who said he was a former Berkeley High student who had been arrested numerous times and had done a stint in prison, said he would like to talk to students about how he went wrong, and how he is now finding a way to live an upstanding life.

To get another perspective on the meeting, look at Berkeleyside’s real-time tweets on the forum.

Update, 9:45 p.m.: BUSD has made available video footage of the parent forum on weapons. The video coverage is in four parts and can be viewed here, here, here, and here

Related:
BHS Principal takes action in wake of gun activity [03.28.11]
Berkeley High students weigh in on gun issues at their school [03.24.11]
Update: Today’s two gun related Berkeley High School incidents [03.22.11]