Hundreds of Berkeley High students came home a day early from a Yosemite National Park field trip Monday after other park guests complained of noise, threats and vandalism.
Trip leaders said the students, all attending the experimental Common Ground “small school,” was merely the largest and most visible youth group at the Curry Village site on Sunday night and may have taken the blame for others’ behavior.
But a spokesperson for Yosemite Curry Services, which runs the park’s lodging concession, maintained Tuesday that those who complained were not mistaken in singling out the Berkeley High group.
“The complaints were coming from the location of the sites where they were staying,” said Karen Hales, the concession spokesperson. “That’s not to say there might not have been a couple of kids from another high school who might have been contributing to the problems, but we didn’t have any reason to believe that was the case.”
Common Ground leaders and students interviewed by the Daily Planet concurred widely that two other high school groups had been asked to leave Curry at 5 a.m. Monday, but Hales said she had “no knowledge” of any other school group being asked to leave.
Common Ground was founded a year ago to provide a curriculum oriented towards the environment and social justice. About 320 of its 420 students, plus 16 teachers and nine chaperones, left Berkeley early Sunday morning and planned to stay in Yosemite until Tuesday. Instead, most ninth and 10th graders left at 3 p.m. Monday. The rest left at 7:30 p.m. and were dropped off at the school late at night.
As tired students straggled in late to class Tuesday, rumors circulated of arrests, drug use and inappropriate sexual activity.
No arrests were made, said Scott Gediman, a ranger and spokesperson for the park. And what actually happened, differs according to the person answering the questions.
“The reality of what happened is radically different from the fabrication and perception that has developed,” said Dana Richards, the Common Ground coordinator. “It’s kind of a nightmarish ‘telephone’ game that has emerged.”
Principal Frank Lynch on Tuesday said he had talked to park officials.
“I got a phone call from a ranger,” Lynch said. “‘It was a lot of kids, it was noisy and a little rowdy and all that, but all in all it wasn’t a bad group at all,’ he said.”
Organization a problem
The problems started at about 8 p.m. Sunday. Kathy Dervin, a chaperone and parent of a ninth-grader, said check-in was slow and Curry Village had mistakenly booked the amphitheater twice. “We had literally hundreds of students sitting and waiting to get into their cabins” with no central place to assemble them, Dervin said. Meanwhile the adults were stretched thin walking groups of four or five students at a time to 72 tents.
At 9 p.m., Hales said, the first of 20 complaints started coming in. Guests in the huge city of 620 white canvas tents said Berkeley High students were jumping on moving vehicles, banging on cabin doors, throwing rocks at younger students, yelling and harassing other guests, and using drugs and alcohol.
Chaperones of two large elementary school groups, Hales said, complained their children were “terrified.”
“They were being threatened, they were saying they were going to beat them up, that they were shaking their cabins,” Hales said.
Blamed for visibility?
Richards said the problems had stemmed from placing a high-spirited urban high school group close to a group of sixth graders “trained to report everything to their teachers.”
“Just the fact that they were a pretty big group there made it pretty easy for people to say, if something bad happened, it must have been them,” Richards said.
“There was significant reason to believe there were students from other high schools that had performed these more egregious acts, like the jumping up and down on the car,” Richards said. “No one could produce any names of any Berkeley High students, no one could identify any Berkeley High students, who were related to any of the acts other than walking down the road instead of walking down the path, and other than general noisiness.”
“Berkeley High School students cussed at each other at the customary rate for Berkeley High School students,” Richards admitted.
Richards and Dervin both said a middle-school principal who made the most sweeping complaint made explicit reference to African-American boys.
“If you can, draw a picture of a woman putting her hands up around her head to gesture a large afro,” Richards said. “Now, none of our kids have big afros.”
“We have a very diverse student population,” Dervin said. “On the face of it that doesn’t mean anything, but it means differences, and people make judgments.”
“On the basis of big black boys in the dark,” Richards said, “and on the basis of, ‘There are a bunch of students from Berkeley High on a program called Common Ground, without being able to identify anyone,’ she filed a complaint against Berkeley High.”
Park representatives and student leaders each claim they were the first to decide on the early departure for Common Ground.
“Curry Village was a mess,” Dervin said. “We had a lot of students and the growing sentiment was that it was too large of a group to manage.”
“There were too many kids and a bad combination of age groups,” Richards said.
Richards said he informed rangers late Sunday night that he would arrange it as soon as buses could be summoned, but the next morning, armed with written complaints, other rangers showed up to give them a nudge.
“No one ever came to me and said, ‘you have to leave,’ said Richards.
“They were asked to leave,” said Park Ranger Gediman. “But when they were asked to leave they were planning to leave anyway.”
Some had fun anyway
At lunchtime Tuesday in Martin Luther King Jr. Park, adjacent to campus, Marcella Leath, a senior in the Common Ground program, retorted emphatically to a circle of friends seated about her on the grass.
“We were not kicked out of Yosemite!” she said.
“It’s really aggravating because everybody’s saying that, and it’s not true,” said Leath in an interview. “Common Ground is already totally underestimated by the school because of what we’re trying to do.”
Another student, who would identify herself only as Laura, said she had enjoyed hiking and yoga on the weekend, and she did not see Berkeley students engaged in any “super-bad behavior.”
“For me personally, the weekend was really great,” she said.
“It was really ambitious of us to try this in the first place,” said Leath.
“The staff and parent volunteers did their absolute best. They got absolutely no sleep the entire trip.”