It wasn’t exactly “Kumbaya,” but Monday night’s meeting between Berkeley residents, police and school officials was described by several in attendance as a significant step, and the culmination of more than a decade of grassroots work by parents and neighborhood activists.
The goal of the meeting was to begin to hash out how the Berkeley Unified School District will approach sharing information with the Berkeley Police Department to keep the community safe while also protecting the rights of those on campus.
The school district currently has no board policy to guide those decisions. Two members of the Berkeley School Board, Ty Alper and Josh Daniels, began trying to outline a policy earlier this year.
In May, when a draft version of the policy came to the attention of the Berkeley Police Department, sparks flew. Officers said at that time they felt the board’s approach looked like an attempt to block police efforts to solve crime, and prioritize the rights of those on campus suspected of committing crimes over the rights of victims. In several cases toward the end of the school year, police said teachers and the district refused to share important information with them about active cases, including a reported sexual assault involving students.
After the initial policy kerfuffle, however, district administrators and representatives from the police department sat down and agreed to table the issue until the fall, and to try to work together.
An early draft from May described the police as “a last resort” and said the board is “committed to avoiding the unnecessary criminalization of BUSD students for whom arrest and juvenile court involvement creates serious long-term consequences.” The policy noted that district employees should contact police only in the case of “imminent threats,” that the identities of students should not be shared, and that students should rarely, if ever, be questioned by police on campus.
The latest draft, from June, instead emphasizes the importance of “working with community partners,” including police, and having a collaborative relationship with local law enforcement.
The main goal of the policy is to look at BUSD’s interaction with law enforcement, and to outline when teachers and administrators need to call police, when there is discretion, and how to exercise that discretion, Alper said. The subcommittee is looking at what other jurisdictions are doing, and how best to proceed.
“We … failed to communicate with BPD that we were doing this,” said Alper, who attended Monday night’s meeting, along with BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans and Susan Craig, director of student services. Alper admitted this had been a mistake and said, later in the meeting, more should have been done to involve parents, too.
Police have been saying publicly since last year they want to work more closely with the school district and exchange more information to allow for early interventions and targeted efforts to help the most at-risk kids. After an initial announcement about that collaboration, there was some indication from the city attorney’s office that confidentiality laws prohibited any exchange of information. But attendees said Monday night that the state Welfare Code absolutely allows for that exchange.
Nearly 20 people attended Monday night’s meeting, which was organized by the Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee, an umbrella organization for neighborhood watch-type activities. In addition to BSNC members, several in attendance were from the PTA and other parent volunteer efforts at Berkeley schools.
Connect with BSNC on Facebook.
Though everyone had their own ideas, a central theme emerged. One after the next, attendees pleaded with the district to communicate better with parents and the larger community, and to be sure to involve those who would like to participate in the process. Others urged school officials to work with police, to understand the laws that outline the information that can be shared, and to be proactive about making sure victims feel as safe on campus as those who are accused of crimes.
Tracy Hollander, of the Berkeley PTA Council, said building stronger community-police relationships will be important going forward.
“We have the police, we have the school district, we have the school community: We’re in this together,” she said. “Things don’t get better by avoiding each other. And I know that there are so many issues out there that are really real. We can’t ignore them. But … we depend on these different institutions. They need to operate with each other, and get to know each other through relationship building.”
It’s not the first time BPD and the School Board have been on very different pages. Earlier this year, members of the school board turned down a grant — already obtained by police — that would have helped pay for an additional officer to work in the schools. Board members at that time said in no uncertain terms that they simply don’t want more police on campus.
Police have said the goal of having officers in the school is to help build relationships and understanding with the goal of helping those who run into trouble down the line. At least some of the teachers as well as the former principal at Berkeley Technology Academy — where the officer would have been placed — endorsed the idea, as did the superintendent. Monday night, Hollander told school representatives she was still disappointed in the board’s vote to reject the grant.
Laura Menard, a former BUSD parent who has been active for decades in public safety issues in Berkeley, said Monday night’s meeting had been a long time coming.
“We have a cultural problem here: One that relies too much on protecting offenders and not enough on protecting victims,” she said. “So few sanctions are put on students that really need some corralling before it gets too far along.”
Menard has advocated strongly for systems used in other counties, such as Contra Costa, that put more of an emphasis on data sharing between law enforcement and schools with the goal of providing more robust services and interventions to youth who are heading down the wrong path.
Enid Camps, co-chair of the Berkeley High School Safety Committee, emphasized the need to balance the needs of both at-risk youth and crime victims. She recalled a case where a student who had been robbed was placed next to the alleged robber in a classroom while the incident was under investigation. She said that just shouldn’t happen.
A policy that puts the priority on protecting the confidentiality of the alleged perpetrator, she said, would be an incomplete policy that “would inhibit both helping at-risk students at school and protecting the school community.”
She continued: “I don’t think this draft in particular strikes the appropriate balance, but I appreciate that it’s a work in progress and you had to start someplace.”
Superintendent Don Evans said relations between police and the district have already been getting stronger. Meetings between the groups that used to be quarterly, he said, are now monthly to “discuss issues back and forth.”
Evans said the district is looking into ways to communicate better with the broader community and described the BPD school resource officer, Matt McGee — who is based four days a week at Berkeley High — as “invaluable.”
“Much of the information that we receive … is because he’s there at the site, and can give us that information and help us with some of the decisions we have to make,” Evans said.
Berkeley School Board Member Ty Alper told those in attendance the board absolutely wants to hear from the community. He said the next subcommittee meeting to discuss the policy regarding information sharing with law enforcement — and other policies, as well — is set for Aug. 25 at 2 p.m. at 2020 Bonar St. in room 126.
“This is just the very early stages of beginning to craft it,” he said.
And he said the board and district, which is in the process of hiring a new spokesman now, are committed to finding more ways to reach the public going forward.
“Communication has not been our greatest strength,” Alper said.
Neighbors, police vow new push on crime prevention (04.05.16)
Berkeley School Board rejects school officer grant (01.27.16)
Berkeley schools, police, city join forces on youth crime (06.02.15)
Berkeley neighbors take on ‘noisy and drunken parties’ (05.05.15)
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