Late to a school dance one evening in March, a Berkeley High School sophomore rounded the corner of Shattuck Avenue at Allston Way, in front of Ross Dress for Less, where a group of eight to 10 teenage boys were idling about. The street was otherwise sparsely peopled, though not empty. As he passed, one of the boys called out, “Hey! Let’s get you.” The student recognized a member of the group from tryouts for a sports team. He thought little of the comment and moved along.
Moments later, someone grabbed his shirt collar. As he turned, slightly stunned, a clenched fist plummeted headlong into his face.
He sustained two fractures to the jaw and spent six weeks with his mouth wired shut.
Police officers chased after the suspects, the student said, but never made an arrest. Incidentally, a similar crime occurred minutes earlier, a couple of sources say: Same culprits, same neighborhood, different injury. That victim, an adult, suffered a cracked orbital.
Random acts of violence, where teens are the perpetrators and often the victims, have attracted growing visibility in recent weeks, as parents have increasingly demanded accountability for the attacks their children endure.
At a joint meeting of the city and the school district Tuesday, parents of young victims spoke out. The parents of the aforementioned teen, whose name the Daily Planet is withholding to protect him from possible retribution, described his assault in vivid detail. Another parent recounted how her son was attacked after school by a group of four teens with designs on his iPod. In a phone interview later that day, a parent revealed that her daughter was smacked in the face while waiting in line for a college counselor because she told a male student to “watch out” when he bumped into her. The student, she later found out, did not attend Berkeley High.
Other concerned parents at Tuesday’s meeting said they feel threats to their children’s safety persist.
“It’s getting worse, not better,” said Tina Bury, who plans to send her daughter to Berkeley High next year. “It’s getting out of control and we can’t do anything about it. I don’t [want to] believe that, but that looks like how it’s going.”
In 2005, the Berkeley Police Department made 35 youth arrests for simple assault, 34 for robberies and 15 for aggravated assault. Certain hotspots, like downtown Berkeley near the high school, and a section of South Berkeley, laid claim to higher concentrations of arrests. It is unclear how many of the perpetrators were from Berkeley and how many were from Oakland or elsewhere. Data for the current year is unavailable.
Overall, though, juvenile crime in Berkeley has waned, said Youth Services Det. Sergeant Dave White, although he does not have current statistics. Schools superintendent Michele Lawrence says disturbances have decreased in the school district, however, on Tuesday, she too was unable to produce data.
On campus, Principal Jim Slemp says incidents have gone down by 200 percent in the last two-and-a-half years.
When a handful of parents met with Slemp to express their concerns over the assault in March, they earned a lukewarm reception, at best, they said.
He was unwilling to acknowledge that there is a violence problem, said Ying Fei Wei, whose son attends Berkeley High. “I didn’t feel he was very supportive,” she said. “He was very defensive.”
Slemp said he bristled because the parents had outlandish ideas for preventing attacks. But other parents have made similar complaints. The parent whose daughter was slapped by a non-Berkeley High student said her daughter saw the assailant on campus after the attack, complained to administrators and was ignored.
“When my daughter saw him, she was afraid and didn’t want to go to school,” the parent said. “We got no response from [the administration and security]. We were just blown off.”
“What we’re hearing from families is kids are afraid to leave school,” said Julie Sinai, senior aide to Mayor Tom Bates. Sinai’s work focuses on youths and families.. “That may not be evident in arrest data, but it’s there in dialogue.”
The attack on the Berkeley High student in front of Ross a few months ago is one of three similar incidents currently under investigation. It mirrors a series of assaults that occurred in 2003, when a group of kids were arbitrarily assaulting other teens as a point of initiation, White said.
“They would find some unsuspecting kid and assault him, push him, kick him and do a pocket check,” where they would inspect for money or other valuables, said White. Those attacks went on for an extended period of time, but eventually officers targeted the ringleader and the pack dissolved.
Soon after one group disbands, though, another one crops up, White said. The kids are different and they hang out in different places, but the delinquent behavior is the same.
Discussions about such assaults often invoke the question of race. A few parents, like Laura Menard, whose son was attacked several years ago, believe that black-on-white violence is a significant problem in Berkeley. The student attacked in March thinks the assault was racially charged. He is white. The assailants were black.
The police department does not have statistics available on the race of youth offenders and victims. However, a general study conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that violence within races is much more common than it is between races. Berkeley High School senior Jennifer Purdy agreed: “Mostly I see black on black” violence, she said.
Sinai said that white victims might simply be more inclined to report incidents.
“Many of the white families there [at Tuesday’s meeting] were talking about black-on-white violence, but issues of safety cross all ethnic lines,” she said, pointing out that when assaults occur, white families may e-mail around, contact the press and lobby public officials. Comparable incidents could be equally prevalent in the Latino community, but families may choose to not go public, she said.
Which points up the further issue of underreporting. An article in the May issue of the BHS Newsletter, a publication of the Parent Teacher Student Association, said just two of six recent attacks on teens were reported to the police because the families feared retaliation. Most of the parents interviewed for this Daily Planet article asked to not have their names printed for the same reason.
“One of the things that’s difficult to overcome is this culture of silence,” said Police Chief Doug Hambleton on Tuesday. “A lot of these kids probably know who the perpetrator is, but they don’t say anything. If someone gets assaulted and doesn’t tell us who did it, there isn’t much we can do.”
The police department is in the process of increasing efforts to curb youth violence, said Hambleton. The department deploys all its bike cops to Berkeley High at peak times and increasingly officers coordinate with Health and Human Services to get help for young criminals. Berkeley High has also beefed up security, with eight campus guards and regularly locked doors to keep unwanted visitors away.
Retiring Berkeley High School teacher Rick Ayers agrees the threat of random violence should not loom over students’ lives—his own child was beat up at Berkeley High in 2003—but he does not believe ramping up police and security is the best emollient. Creating small communities within the school, where young people form relationships with adults, is a better solution, he said.
“I know it’s safer when kids are in a community,” he said.
Terry Doran, president of the Berkeley Board of Education, said the board is doing its part to discipline offenders by approving more suspensions and expulsions. “Even one incident is terrible,” he said. “We do have a zero tolerance policy in the schools.”