About 100 Berkeley High School students conducted anti-violence workshops on campus Monday, kicking off a pupil-led effort to stem the violence at BHS.
The students, mustered by Youth Together, an East Bay leadership development group, spoke in English classes throughout the day and reached more than 90 percent of the student body, according to organizers.
“We’re trying to have a schoolwide conversation about violence,” said Josh Parr, Youth Together coordinator at BHS.
Workshop leaders asked their peers to define violence and discuss how stereotypes can feed interracial conflict. They also distributed surveys to gauge students’ perceptions of violence and potential solutions. After compiling survey data, Youth Together plans to stage a forum on student-generated solutions and form committees to implement them.
The organization is working closely with BHS deans of discipline Meg Matan and Robert McKnight. Matan, whose position was just created this year, said seeking student input is vital in any anti-violence efforts.
“We need the kids,” she said. “It’s got to be a grassroots thing. The kids have to buy into it and have that voice.”
But Youth Together and high school staff face serious obstacles. Matan said since she started work as a full-time dean in January, she has been surprised by the sheer volume of incidents that come across her desk, noting that there are at least two to three fights per week at BHS.
Students in a freshman English class Monday told their own stories of hallway fights, street conflicts and a gang called “Tfflon” with members in Oakland and Berkeley who engage in on-campus violence.
“Tfflon is (behind) a lot of the violence at this school,” said sophomore Risa Swarn, noting that her own brother, a former BHS student, is in the gang.
Saima Shah, a Pakistani-American junior, added that many of the Middle Eastern students at the school have suffered from harrassment since Sept. 11.
Students suggested that reporting a fight is not an option because word gets around, and aggressors threaten to beat accusers.
Jasmine Stiggers, a BHS sophomore who led a number of workshops on Monday, added that anti-violence activities tend not to reach the most violent kids.
“The people who are causing the problems aren’t going to class,” she said.
With the district in serious financial trouble and $6 million in cuts on the horizon, Matan said expensive solutions are probably not an option. But, she said inexpensive new programs and greater promotion of existing, underutilized school services could have a significant impact.
Matan said a peer mediation program run out of the guidance counselors’ office and counseling services available through the the high school’s health center are two examples of programs that could be better used.
BHS senior Sarena Chandler, who is the student representative on the school board, agreed that BHS could make better use of existing resources. But ultimately, she said, a systematic approach is necessary.
“We’re not dealing with the roots of violence,” she said. “When the home is failing to provide support, it’s the schools’ responsibility to raise children, to provide community.”