Berkeley releases safety plan to reduce guns at schools

Berkeley safety officers Steven Saunders and Diesel Sutherland wear logoed uniform

The Berkeley Unified School District released a plan on Tuesday to improve security at the high school, but didn’t address one of the major recommendations made by the police – to put security officers in uniform.

The district will pay to have a police officer on campus five days a week instead of four; accelerate training for security officers; hire an independent agency to examine the district’s security procedures; create an ad hoc committee to examine whether to partially close the campus and require students to display identification badges; and install internal locks on classroom doors, among other changes. The measures will cost the district $89,000, according to the report.

But the long list of changes do not address concerns raised by the Berkeley Police Department in a letter sent to Superintendent Bill Huyett on March 31. In the correspondence, Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said his “top recommendation” for the security program is to put safety officers in uniform.

“We recommend all security personnel have a visible, uniformed appearance,” wrote Meehan. “Visible security personnel are a deterrent to non-students attempting to enter campus for unauthorized or illegal purposes. Additionally, this increases security personnel safety by ensuring responding police officers can easily recognize and coordinate with staff during incidents.”


Meehan’s letter also suggests that the security officers be equipped with handcuffs or plastic flexcuffs to restrain students. That point wasn’t addressed in the new plan either.

No top officials at the school district could be contacted to comment on the report or police letter since it is spring break. The report will be presented to the school board at its April 13 meeting.

The question of uniforms for school safety officers has been an issue for decades at Berkeley High. For years the officers refused to wear a uniform, but in recent years have started to wear blue jackets and white or black polo shirts with a Berkeley High logo on it.

Still, the uniforms so closely resemble normal street attire that it is often difficult to distinguish the safety officers, according to Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, a spokeswoman for the Berkeley Police Department. When there is a brawl, for example, and safety officers are trying to break apart a group of fighting students, the officers are hard to tell apart from the students, she said.

“At the present, there are times when Berkeley police personnel don’t know the difference between the safety officers, who are full grown men, and students, who have the appearance of full grown men,” said Kusmiss.

In addition, if the safety officers were wearing uniforms while patrolling the high school, non-students who might be thinking of entering the campus might think twice, she said.

The police department also said that the number one safety step the district could take would be to close the school campus at lunch. In his report to the school board, Huyett said he would appoint an ad hoc safety committee made up of six staff members, four parents, and two high school students to consider the proposal. The group will also examine the idea of ID badges, look at the protocol for visitors on campus, and review the third-party security assessment of the campus. The group will also examine the idea of a community school for students who have been expelled. Huyett’s letter to the school board did not detail what this means, but the district is considering establishing a school at the Adult School campus.

Seven students have been arrested in recent months for bringing guns to Berkeley High and B-Tech, along with a number of other gun-related arrests nearby. The latest incident was Friday, when a Berkeley High student was held up by a gun on Shattuck Avenue near the high school. The alleged assailant, a former high school student, had been released from jail just a week earlier after serving time for a house burglary, according to sources who asked not to be named.

The spate of gun incidents has prompted the district, school board, and high school officials to examine current safety policies and come up with new measures to improve security.

As part of this effort, Huyett is planning to hire a third-party organization to review the district’s policies, according to the report. The organization will use the standards set by the National Crime Prevention Council as a benchmark.

In the last two weeks, the district has added two safety officers to the staff, bringing to 14 the number of officers at the high school. They have been instructed to do hourly sweeps of isolated areas like bathrooms. The district has also made permanent the additional safety officer stationed at B-Tech. The high school will hire a part-time administrator to coordinate all these efforts, according to the report.

Huyett also detailed the training instruction currently scheduled for security staff. This includes two one-hour sessions with Berkeley police in April; a 40-hour training on conflict resolution for four safety officers; and a three-day workshop for safety officers in all of the district’s middle and high schools in June. That will be led by the Institute for School Safety.

UPDATE April 6, 12:20 pm Susan Craig, the director of student services, called in from vacation to say that the district will be examining the question of uniforms in the coming weeks. “We are considering upgrading the uniform so it is more professional-looking and more visible.”