Op-ed: Admin, students share blame for BHS Rally Day mob

I am a senior at Berkeley High School, I’ve been in school Leadership — a student government organization — for all four years, and I was present at Friday’s Rally Day mob scene. I know it got completely out of hand. It is 100% unacceptable for anyone to be physically hurt, and the firecracker that sounded like a gunshot was frightening. Reading through multiple articles, comments and responses from the administration, all of the blame has been put on the students, especially senior class. Clearly all of the student body shares responsibility for the events that happened, but so does the administration.

Firstly, the administration’s decision to cancel Spirit Week was not made until five days before the celebration was supposed to begin. Members of Leadership had put in a proposal to administration and went to meetings with school officials to organize the event. About a month before Rally Day was set to happen, administrators gave us the green light. They said they wanted us to help plan Spirit Week — as is tradition — with, of course, oversight from the school. Leadership planned all of the spirit days, Monday through Thursday, in which the students dress up in themes such as pajama day and 80s/90s day.

Despite this, some of my teachers have told me they did not know there was going to be a Spirit Week, approved or not, until the week before it was supposed to begin. What I have learned after the fact is that members of the administration did not communicate to teachers as a whole until Wednesday, Oct. 15, that Spirit Week would take place. The teachers were shocked Spirit Week had been reinstated without their input and voted against it. It was only that evening that Leadership was informed Spirit Week had been canceled. Members of Leadership then told the student body about the decision, but the administration did not officially inform students until Monday, Oct. 20, over the announcements on the first day of Spirit Week.

As a member of Leadership, I was incredibly disappointed when we suddenly learned the event had been canceled. As an individual, I was upset to have my favorite week in the whole school year taken away. As Leadership had been in contact about Spirit Week with the student body for awhile, you can imagine what I felt, multiplied by 3,500. (Reading the comments I feel like I should note that Spirit Week is not a “white event” or a “black event” or one belonging to any other group: It is truly a school-wide event and it is the only one all year). Many students had taken it upon themselves to organize Spirit Week. Ultimately, the administration’s decision had no effect on events that had been in the works for weeks, and Spirit Week went on as planned.

And most of it went along incredibly well. Monday through Thursday were great, tons of students dressed up and it was really positive. Almost all of Rally Day itself went well too. Yes, a handful of students were suspended for being intoxicated, which is inexcusable, but, to be honest, in a large, public high school you could find 15 students under the influence almost any day. Yes, students were shouting in the hallways, but it did not equate to the claim of “hazing and bullying behavior” that Berkeley High students have been smeared with. Most people shout their graduation year and grade. The WORST things I heard chanted were “F-ck (insert year here).” I would not call this bullying anymore than I would call booing an opposing sports team hazing. It’s part of the competitive, fun atmosphere and is rarely, if ever, said in a hateful manner.

While Rally Day during the school day was actually notably calmer than in years past, there was one glaring difference. There were no parent volunteers. There were no extra administrators making sure the hallways were safe. There were only the dozen safety officers that are always at Berkeley High. To me it seemed the administration was so hellbent on making sure it clearly came across as against Spirit Week and against Rally Day, it forgot one of its most important jobs: making sure the student body is safe.

It was completely expected for the senior class to go to the Senior Steps at the end of the day Friday. It happens every year and happened every day that week at the beginning of lunch and after school. What was unexpected was the junior class surrounding us. With two groups yelling back and forth it was only bound to escalate. Eventually it became throwing plastic water bottles and then metal and glass ones. Clearly all the student present share responsiblity for this. However, I can’t help but think if the administration had only put a tiny bit of preparation into this day, no one would have been hurt.

I don’t think the administration should have been surprised that Spirit Week happened, considering they canceled it less than a week before it was supposed to begin. If administrators did not think Rally Day was going to happen after the majority of students dressed up in costumes for four days prior, shame on them for keeping their heads in the sand and pretending what they don’t approve doesn’t happen. If school officials knowingly did nothing about a day they knew was going to happen, shame on them for not doing their job on the most fundamental level.

The administration as a whole still remains incredibly unorganized and indecisive in its response. Administrators have told members of Leadership that all damages will be paid for by senior class Leadership and taken out of our prom fund. While I understand their rationale, it was upsetting to think they put all of the blame on my grade. Then a different administrator got mad at members of Leadership for “spreading a rumor that Leadership would pay for all damages.” This was confusing considering that we were specifically told this by Berkeley High staff members.

Other administrators have told us they’re considering taking away our prom. In fact, one teacher told all of his students, “Prom is not happening this year for sure.” I am not sure how this makes any sense because student Leadership booked the venue for prom over six months ago, and it is too late to get a refund. So Berkeley High School would be spending $15,000 on nothing, with no way of making that back through ticket sales. Administrators are very quick to pass the blame on to the student body, especially seniors, and not consider their own failures in dealing with the events after school on Rally Day.

Personally, I have been extremely disappointed by administration this year. In all four years at Berkeley High I have never experienced an administration so incapable of handling the issues at our school. There has always been bureaucracy and miscommunication, but this is inexcusable. I understand we are currently without a principal, but the administration’s action, or rather inaction, is shocking. Students can effectively organize a week in which everyone gets dressed up. Administrators cannot get a dozen or so volunteers to help make sure the day goes smoothly. The administration has recently shown a lack of foresight and planning in its actions.

This is not the only occurrence of poor handling of events by the Berkeley High administration this year. A noose was hung on a tree at Berkeley High nearly a month ago. Students were not told of this until over a week later. Even when we were told it was not by the administration, but by a brave student who learned about the event and “went rogue,” telling the whole school about it over the announcements. As we are all part of this community, we all deserve to know what happens in it. Even this week, the most I have talked about this incident, under school auspices, was a 10-minute discussion in class. We have had no assembly. We have not even been given a formal statement by the administration. The fact there has been a federal hate crime committed on our campus and the administration has refused to discuss it with us in any manner is disturbing to say the least.

I love Berkeley High. I love its culture. I’ve found it a place where I can learn incredible things from my teachers and my peers. But I am looking forward to next year when I have graduated and do not have to deal with the dysfunctional, ineffective and unorganized Berkeley High administration.

[Editor’s note: The cost of booking the prom venue was updated after publication at the author’s request when more accurate information became available.]

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Joseph Taecker-Wyss is a lifelong Berkeley resident and current senior in Academic Choice at Berkeley High School where he is involved in Student Leadership, Key Club and the Berkeley High Jacket.