Opinion: The Willard school community wants answers from Berkeley police about a troubling incident

In late March, a white driver stopped his car to stop roughhousing between a black student and a white student, eventually assailing the boy and chasing him into the street.

This letter was sent to Berkeley Chief Andrew Greenwood, Mayor Jesse Arreguín, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley and Berkeleyside. More than 20 teachers from Willard Middle School signed it. See the police response here.

Members of the Willard staff have collectively written this letter with the intention of informing the larger community about a troubling incident that happened in our Willard Middle School community and to seek a just remedy for the students who were involved.  As teachers and staff at Willard, we feel compelled to share this experience and our concerns with you and the larger Berkeley community, because we care about the safety of our students and want to prevent future harm to them.

On March 26th, an incident occurred on the sidewalk directly in front of Willard Middle School just after students had been released from school for the day. Two 7th grade friends were rough-housing and one of them, an African-American male student, picked up the other, a white female student, as they were playing.  As the male student was putting his friend back on the ground, a white man (with no affiliation to Willard) who was driving by on Telegraph Avenue, suddenly rolled through the red light at Stuart Street, turned left towards the two students and stopped his vehicle in the middle of the street.  The man jumped out of his truck and began running towards the boy in an aggressive and threatening manner while shouting profanities at him. A male teacher from Willard who was driving home spotted the man attacking the male student.  The teacher parked his car and began to intervene to stop the man from attacking the male student. Numerous other witnesses also tried to intervene, including the friends of the boy and the supposed female “victim”, but the man would not relent. Fearing for his safety, the male student ran away, terrified at being pursued by a stranger.  As the man chased him, the boy ran onto Telegraph Avenue, at which point a passing car ran into the student and stopped on his foot, causing minor injury to the boy’s foot. While the student’s foot was pinned under the car, the man grabbed hold of him and pulled him to the ground. The driver of the car then sped off from the scene.

During and after the incident, Willard teachers arrived on the scene, eventually stopping the white man from further assaulting the child. They called the police, took the injured student to the hospital and stayed with him until his grandmother arrived.

When Berkeley Police responded to a call from a witness at the scene they temporarily handcuffed the adult male. Officers interviewed witnesses, including approximately seven Willard students. The police then released the assailant without charging him. As members of the Willard community, we are deeply involved with and concerned about the physical and emotional safety and well-being of all of our students.  The circumstances of this troubling incident compel us to bring this story to the attention of Berkeley residents, and political officials and to seek answers and better understand why charges were not brought against the individuals who harmed this child. Equally importantly, we seek to determine how those entrusted to protect our children can respond more effectively in the future. We care about the health and well-being of our students, and we know that the society we live in makes them uniquely and unequally vulnerable to harm by strangers because of perceived threats associated with students’ race, gender and or religion.

In this instance, one of our African-American male students was assailed with profanity, chased and grabbed by an angry white man, struck with a car by another man, and then was told by a white police sergeant that nothing wrong actually happened. In addition, the grandmother, who is the legal guardian of this child, reports that she was told by Berkeley police that she has no right to any written reports or documentation of the incident without a court order. This response from the Berkeley Police Department is deeply disturbing and highly disruptive to our school community and our climate of safety and well-being.

We are concerned not only by what we consider to be a racially motivated assault on a child, but about the police response or lack thereof. Why was the adult male not arrested for threatening and attacking this child? If the man really was so concerned about the danger posed to the girl, why didn’t he just ask her if she was alright instead of immediately charging at the boy? Is the driver of the vehicle that ran over the student’s foot being pursued by police? Why hasn’t the BPD provided written information to the injured student’s family? Did the police make caring for the health and medical needs of the injured student a priority? Since the man claimed he made a “citizen’s arrest” of the child, why hasn’t there been a subsequent investigation and police report? Will BPD be following up with a report on the incident to the Willard community and the Berkeley community as a whole?

We are requesting an explanation, information and disclosure in the form of proactive communication from the Berkeley Police and city leaders to the stakeholders within the Willard Middle School community. We ask the Berkeley Police Department to open an investigation into the incident to restore trust as well as our relationship with those we depend on to help us keep our students safe. We will continue to support the family as they work to recover from this traumatic incident. Thank you for your attention to this matter, and we look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Members of the Willard Middle School faculty and staff, including, but not limited to:

Patty Bonsall                        Evan Ho                    Eric Hwang

John Fike                              Ernesto Marin           Zabed Monika

Kathryn Mapps                    Luis Reyna                Pamela Stewart

Kelly Schwartz                    Sharon Arthur           Rosaline Barrios

Robert MacCarthy               Marian Malasig        Kate Elahi

Kelly Parsons                      Paxton Griffon          Corey Cohen

Melissa Corrigan                 Jessica Lee                Susan Rafert

Chloe Smith                        Ben Jackson

Kinjal Shah                       Nina Ackerberg

Editor’s note: The op-ed originally read: Berkeleyside reached out to Berkeley police numerous times for comment but has not heard back. While this is true, it turns out Chief Andrew Greenwood has been on vacation for the last week. 

5/23: This opinion piece was further update to add the police response.