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Safety a top priority at Berkeley High School

By Ben LumpkinDaily Planet Staff
Monday April 09, 2001

It’s just past 11 a.m. on Friday, March 30, when Balinda Floyd, secretary to Berkeley High School Principal Frank Lynch, announces to the people clustered around her desk that there’s been yet another school shooting — this time in Gary, Indiana. 

“A kid walked into class and shot a 16-year-old boy,” Floyd said, reading from her pager. 

But no one asks for details. No one has time. 

Already there’s been a brawl in the girls’ locker room that took most of the school’s seven safety officers to break up. The girls involved have been ushered into separate vice-principal’s offices. They’re being interview one-by-one by Barry Wiggan, the school’s security supervisor, and officers from the Berkeley Police Department. 

Already the safety officers have pulled one student from class after he allegedly threatened his classmates. The student had to be brought into the school’s administrative offices, a cluster of temporary trailers, by force. 

“This is like Good Morning Vietnam,” Safety Officer Mary Reynolds said, referring to the movie starring Robin Williams to no one in particular as the police radios crackle in the background. 

But it’s just another Friday at Berkeley High. 

After a Berkeley High student told a special committee of school administrators and Berkeley city councilmembers last month about groups of Berkeley High students who allegedly terrorized the school through violence and intimidation, administrators have made improving safety at the school a top priority. 

“(The student) described conditions that are intolerable, and conditions that we intend to address,” said Stephen Goldstone, Berkeley Unified School District interim superintendent, at the school board’s April 4 meeting. 

Goldstone and Lynch have met with Berkeley Police Chief Dash Butler and others in recent weeks to come up with plans to improve the campus environment. A School Safety Committee made up of teachers, parents and students will meet weekly to identify and brainstorm solutions to the school’s most challenging safety issues. 

Some changes have already occurred. After five Berkeley High students were assaulted on campus Friday, March 23, by teenagers believed to be from another town, Lynch invited a group of concerned parents to begin patrolling the campus themselves during the difficult hours after lunch. 

“We kind of put our foot on the accelerator,” Lynch said. “We said, ‘Let’s stop talking about it. Let’s do it.’” 

But until there are more sweeping changes instituted, the situation at Berkeley High is much the same. And school safety officers are anticipating more fights and discipline problems as the days get hotter. 

“The tempers are quick on hot days,” said Reynolds. “The guys are more aggressive because the girls have got more showing.” 

Berkeley High’s safety officers are charged with patrolling the campus throughout the day, removing disruptive kids from class, breaking up fights, and getting kids to go to class, among other things. Most school discipline matters are handled through suspension, either on campus or off. If a student’s offense rises to the level of a crime it is promptly turned over to Berkeley Police. 

The number of crimes reported on the Berkeley High campus has grown in leaps and bounds over the last three years. In 1998, Berkeley police records show 36 crimes reported on the campus — including nine thefts, seven cases of burglary from cars and four batteries. In 1999, records show 69 crimes — including 13 thefts, 12 batteries, two assaults on school employees and two assaults with a deadly weapon. In 2000, records show 92 crimes — including 14 thefts, 13 batteries and six cases of arson. 

But for school safety officers, such statistics are irrelevant because they say Berkeley High is not nearly as bad as some schools. 

“We haven’t had to deal with some of the serious things you see on the television set,” said Safety Officer Billy Keys. “We deal with the usual things that happen at any high school.” 

The single biggest nuisance on campus, Keys and others said, are just the run-of-the-mill fights that break out when someone, for one reason or another, gets his or her feelings hurt. Fights not considered a crime are not tallied in police statistics. 

“It’s the follow through on what’s taken place (in the kids’ lives) over the weekend,” Lynch said of the fighting. “We’re dealing with the aftermath.” 

For Keys, it is unrealistic to think that the school can prevent these types of skirmishes. 

“Is it right? No. Should it happen? No. You going to stop it? No,” Keys said. 

In the 1980s, Keys remembered that Berkeley had 13 campus monitors — instead of seven safety officers — to stop problems before they start at various parts of the campus. 

“This kind of set up is kind of ridiculous,” Keys said, referring to the fact that today there are only seven safety officers for 3,200 students spread out across a 17-acre campus. 

As much as they can, safety officers said they try to prevent problems by building relationships with students, both to keep the kids out of trouble and to keep themselves informed. 

“We have ingrained ourselves in the school so we’re able to see things when they come and respond appropriately,” Keys said. 

Reynolds said it is a matter of simply communicating with the students. 

“I love the kids and I try to reach them in any way I possibly can. ... I let them vent. A lot of times they just need somebody to help them … somebody to care,” Reynolds said. 

From the perspective of the safety officers, a number of things need to happen for Berkeley High to become a safer, more stable environment. 

For one thing, many said, it will help when the construction on the school’s east side is completed because students will actually have a library and student union to hang out. More space equals less tension, the officers said. 

Also, the officers said, the school needs set strict standards for attendance and make sure all teachers adhere to them. Many of the problems occur when kids are loitering around campus with nothing to do but start trouble, the officers said. And all too often the safety officers themselves can’t compel the kids to go to class because they might have a semi-legitimate excuse, like a free period due to error in their class schedule, or special permission from a teacher to skip class, to leave early or to arrive late. 

For Safety Officer Jason Howard, attendance isn’t the only area where enforcement is unreliable. In part because the school changed principals a number of times in the ’90s, enforcement of discipline in a number of areas has been varied and inconsistent, Howard said. 

“If we have a set of rules that don’t bend, don’t break, and for staff and students there consequences to things that happen, I think we’ll have a better school,” Howard said. 

Lynch said the school is consistent with its suspension policy but acknowledged that classroom discipline may vary from teacher to teacher. 

Students are “disruptive,” Keys said, in part because the school is not meeting their needs. The time has come to acknowledge that different kids have different needs and create school programs that reflect that, Keys said, pointing to the Rebound program, a intensive program to help freshman failing English and Math catch up to their classmates, as an example. Berkeley High already has three “small learning communities” and is moving towards creating a fourth. School officials are also considering an official move to the “small learning community model,” which would create more schools-within-a-school for different groups of students.  

“We have to have programs that deal with all of our students,” Keys said. “If the only thing we’re going to do is provide discipline, we’d be running around in circles.”