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Panel goal is to tackle BHS violence issue

By Ben Lumpkin Daily Planet Staff
Friday March 16, 2001

A joint committee of city and school district leaders vowed to get tough on violence at Berkeley High School Thursday after hearing a student paint a grim portrait of life at the school. 

“Berkeley High is a great school but it’s being run into the ground by (a violent) element,” Berkeley High student Varun Paul told the “2 x 2” committee, which includes Mayor Shirley Dean, City Councilmember Linda Maio, City Manager Weldon Rucker, Board of Education President Terry Doran and Board of Education Vice-president Shirley Issel. 

Paul said he had witnessed attacks on students and teachers and had been attacked himself in the hallways of BHS. 

“If you were to go there I think you would be shocked,” Paul said. “There are areas of the school where it is just extremely, extremely hazardous.” 

“It’s a culture full of retaliatory violence,” said Laura Menard, the parent of a Berkeley High student. She said she tells her son to “watch his back” when she drops him off at school each morning. 

“You have to move in and create real enforcement,” Menard said.  

The committee adopted a proposal by Menard Thursday to appoint a task force to come up with recommendations for reducing the number of violent incidents on campus. 

Dean said she hoped the task force would deal quickly with problems on the BHS campus today. 

“This time it gets taken care of,” Dean said. “I don’t ever want to hear about students getting beaten up at Berkeley High anymore. 

Meanwhile, students leaving Berkeley High Thursday, minutes after the committee meeting, reported seeing a fight in the C Building where one girl was lead away with her face “busted up.” 

Fights on campus – notably fights between  

girls – are a regular occurrence, the students said, and not something that can be easily prevented by the school’s teachers or security staff. 

“I don’t think they could stop it if they wanted to,” said sophomore Myron Seals. “If kids want fight they’re going fight.” 

Students underscored that those who picked fights were not part of a small clique. They said it was a general phenomena. Some said they believed as many as one-third of the school’s students might be involved in the fighting, which they said often stems from regional rivalries and friction between ethnic groups. 

Asked if he felt unsafe at Berkeley High, sophomore Rocky Garcia said : “I don’t really let myself feel uncomfortable. It’s kind of like wolves: If they smell fear they’re gonna call you on it.” 

Issel said the school district has implemented a number of initiatives to deal with violence at Berkeley High over the years but needs to step up its efforts in light of the stories told by Paul and others. 

“There’s something going on here that’s impacting our kids in ways that are very troubling to them and to us.” 

Doran agreed. The problem of violence at Berkeley High “is serious and it hasn’t been dealt with effectively and successfully in a long time,” Doran said.  

But Doran warned that there is a gulf between asking for more stringent rule enforcement and getting it.  

“What happens is the staff get overwhelmed and retreat to their classrooms because they feel their first commitment is to (the students there),” Doran said, referring to the high numbers of students out of class at any given moment at Berkeley High, a factor many agreed provides opportunities for misbehavior. 

Berkeley Unified School District Interim Superintendent Stephen Goldstone said the success of the proposed task force would depend on setting a firm time line for implementing its recommendations, and then making sure the city and school board defend the new measures if they should come under fire by unhappy Berkeley High parents. 

Others warned that the only way to protect new measures from coming under attack was to create an inclusive process for addressing the violence from the get go. 

Maio said, “We don’t want to be in the position where we hear shouts from the community that this is racist.”  

Unless the task force involves all the different segments of the community working together in partnership “we’re not going to get anywhere at all,” Maio said. 

Dean said the task force should include members of the 2 x 2 committee, students, police, parents and perhaps some mental health experts. 

Doran said it is important not to view more stringent enforcement of rules as a panacea for changing the environment at Berkeley High. Administrators should also consider how to reorganize academic programs at Berkeley High to relieve pressures that drive students to violence, he said. 

The sheer size of the campus leads to feelings of “alienation and anonymity” by students, Doran said, adding that the board is considering plans to implement additional “small learning” communities at Berkeley High to give more students a sense of belonging.  

Rucker supported the creation of a task force Thursday but said it would be better to deal with problems such as those described by Paul as they occur rather than in a committee meeting after the fact. 

“Why don’t we communicate better as responsible adults that we have some problems?” Rucker asked. “If someone is violating the law, then we need to enforce the law. Somebody needs to be observing this and reporting this at a much earlier stage.”  

Paul told the committee he warned school staff that out-of-town students in Berkeley for last week’s affirmative action protest were planning a “raid” on Berkeley High to start fights. His warnings went unheeded, he said. 

Berkeley Police Sergeant Steve Odom said police had known about the threat for days and did all they could to prevent it. Police anticipate such incidents and have a game plan for when they occur, he said.  

“The first thing we do is share the information with the school,” he said. 

Last week, Berkeley Police stationed additional officers around Berkeley High on streets the out-of-town students would likely traverse to get to the school, Odom said. They tried to be in all the places where large groups of Berkeley High students and students from the rival school might encounter one another. 

“The things that were done were the right things,” Odom said. “I really believe we prevented a lot of things from happening.”