It’s been over a month since a fire nearly destroyed the B Building at Berkeley High School, but the school is still dealing with the aftermath.
And it is unlikely that the campus will be back to normal any time soon.
The fire, an act of arson that occurred April 12, started on the first floor of the building located on Bancroft Way, in the middle of campus. It spread through the hallways and through the ceiling, up to the second floor. By the time the flames had been put out, the Health Center, reprographics room, library, and counselors’ offices had all been at least somewhat damaged.
When the fire rekindled the following day, a Thursday morning, students were sent home for an early spring break.
The Berkeley City Task Force met that day and decided that the school would not be able to open by the time spring break would end, over a week later. However, led by Associate Superintendent of Instruction Chris Lim, the emergency planning team was able to bring in portables to replace the B Building classrooms, give cellular phones to counselors and administrators who had no other phone access, and get the campus going again with the help of volunteers.
The school reopened the Monday following spring break, and slowly but surely, some order has been restored.
The counselors’ offices moved across campus to the first floor of the H Building. The Health Center temporarily moved into a dressing room in the Community Theatre. The principal’s office moved into a portable in the school’s courtyard.
“Anything that was on computers is still there, but things like grade change forms that were on our desks, transcripts that kids had brought in, all that stuff is gone,” counselor Deidra Johnson said.
The counselors moved into a multi-purpose room with almost no office supplies to start with. The school rented desks, and over time each counselor’s cubicle has been furnished with a computer, pens, and paper. Counselors used the cellular phones until early May, when they received regular telephones.
“It’s almost like walking into an empty building and starting over,” Johnson said.
In addition to room changes, the daily procedures, both academically and administratively, have been revised.
Students are forced to carry ID cards and class schedules with them at all times, while staff need identification badges. The school has also implemented a system this year where students have to get a pass if they are more than five minutes late to class.
Berkeley High also boosted its security, which was has always been highly noticeable around campus. There are security guards, volunteers, and teachers constantly patrolling the school.
The school’s perimeters have been secured, and students are only allowed to be on campus between 7:45 a.m. and 4 p.m. All visitors must now enter through a breezeway located on Martin Luther King Jr. Way, sign in, wear an identification sticker while on campus, and sign out upon leaving.
“The halls are a lot quieter,” school safety officer Betty Spillman said. “I think students are really concerned. People are taking it very seriously now; it’s really disruptive (when students roam the halls during class).”
However, some students disagreed with the notion that the campus is safer.
“Initially they planned to make it a lot more secure around here but I think as Berkeley High has in so many other situations, they really haven’t really lived up to that,” junior Will Lerner said.
Sophomore Ben Chambers agreed that early attempts to boost security on campus have deteriorated.
“There was a big increase (in security) in the beginning and now it’s pretty much the same as it was before,” Chambers said. “Right after the fire there were so many security guards.”
However, Chambers said that the school has strictly implemented rules about keeping students out of the halls during class periods.
The front portion of the B Building, where the offices of counselors and administrators were located, has been deemed safe of contaminants. Everything that was left in this area after the fire has been removed to sheds outside the building.
The school library, which was located on the second floor, is somewhat safe from asbestos and other contaminants and the school has begun removing books. Supplies from the rest of the building will not be removed until air-quality samples are taken.
The estimates for repairing the damages are about $2 million, but classrooms and offices will not be ready for over a year.
Since the B Building contained control panels for the entire school’s communication system, clocks, phones, bells, and Internet connections do not work in any classrooms.
“It has changed the way we do business, it has changed the way we relate to one another, it has changed the way school runs, it has changed our space relationships,” principal Theresa Saunders said. “There’s the key issue and security issues. There are locks on doors where there weren’t locks before.
“It has changed what’s happening in classrooms. Students and teachers are feeling a lot more stressed because we know this person (who started the fire) is among us.”
Saunders said she feels strongly that Berkeley High still provides a good atmosphere for education.
While security may have improved the safety of Berkeley High, some have noticed changes in the attitudes of students.
“It’s much looser,” English teacher Jeff Rapson said. “Some of the students have told me that no longer does the office call home when they cut, so attendance has really dropped a lot.
“There’s a sense that things are so screwed up right now that a lot of (students) are using that as an excuse for not performing, not coming, not doing their work. They just feel like they can get away with more than they could earlier.”
Rapson also suggested that the end of the school year usually brings unrest, and that next year could show improvements. By that time, students and faculty may have fully adapted to the new Berkeley High School.