Public Comment

Commentary: It All Starts at the Top

By Laura Menard
Friday October 19, 2007

Thanks to reporter Riya Bhattacharjee (“All Visitors to Show Photo ID at Berkeley High”) and to parent Ellen Mates (“How To Be a Victim, as Taught by the Berkeley Police and Berkeley High”) for information about ongoing security failures at BHS. Since the school community suffers a virtual “news black out,” never receiving incident information or safety updates from our principal directly, we learn more in the Planet. 

I feel particularly qualified to comment for two reasons: I have been engaged in school safety reforms for over a decade, and last spring I filed a Uniform Complaint (UCP) for non-compliance with state requirements for Safe School planning. The resolution of the complaint resulted in BHS reconstituting a safety committee, quashed since 2004. So when Principal Jim Slemp tells us “The idea of having visitor IDs came from parents themselves,” I wonder who this group is and how they have assumed the role of the safety committee? 

Let’s consider some of the more important contradictions in Principal Slemp’s new security measure and its implications. First, Slemp’s single example focuses on securing campus from parents with restraining orders. This is important, however the goal cannot be satisfied by the recommended procedure: Parent volunteers do not have the authority to crosscheck confidential information of other parents. Second, we learn that Slemp “acknowledges that many of the security incidents on campus this year were due to non-students coming into the campus.” And his response dismisses recommendations made by police officers assigned to campus and downtown about the potential use of student ID cards. “I don’t want to repress anybody.” Is this just more pandering to students with an anarchist sensibility? Seems to me if Slemp is really interested in protecting kids explaining to the student body their role and responsibility in creating a safe and positive school culture is one step closer to realizing progress. When did the liberal rally cry lose meaning? “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” 

But what of the principal’s responsibility embedded in CA Ed Code, with its provisions of a “Duty to Protect” so clear that the school board should consider how vulnerable they are to legal liability. Legal precedent supports a parents’ right to sue if their child is the victim of crime while unsupervised in an area where a known danger exists. The number of incidents downtown supports such a finding. Where is the oversight from the superintendent or Board of Education? If Director Shirley Issel’s response is any indication, we are in big trouble: “I don’t want to hear about it, take it up with Slemp. It is his policy.” 

“Good news only” Slemp sidesteps all the tough issues and has purposely undermined the purview of the safety committee. Now he intends to handpick its parent representatives, while elections were allowed for other governance committees. Here is a list of some of tough issues continually ignored: 1) Closed or open campus? 2) ID cards, remove the power and privilege of anonymity by requiring students to show IDs when entering campus. 3) Assign campus supervisors downtown for lunch duty. 4) Obtain restraining orders against offenders who show up at campus intent on retaliation against an enrolled student. 5) Referrals for truancy intervention services. 6) Provide school community with regular reports of incidents data as per state law. 7) Curb drug sales and use on and around campus. How many non-students were actually stopped on campus last month, how many last year? The data is available, and by law data forms the basis for decision-making and the development of policy and practice by the safety committee. 

Last spring, same as every year, city staff organized a meeting with school staff and downtown merchants to discuss the impact of 3,000 unsupervised students downtown. It is nothing more than a political exercise and they have yet to progress to problem solving. Principal Slemp said he would not post campus safety officers or administrators downtown regularly. Instead he explained his responsibility was to protect the campus, but when asked he estimated only 10 percent of the student body remains on campus for lunch. Practically speaking, taxpayers are paying twice for reactive-only security measures. Consider 4-6 police officers assigned at lunch or after school roughly costing $100 per hour each, plus BUSD salaries for 10 campus safety officers and 9 administrators. 

To fellow parent Ellen and your daughter, I sympathize and I wish I could say your experience was an anomaly. It is not. While I am tough on Jim Slemp, I fully understand how many BHS staff members are really capable and talented people working in a broken system, and I would like to thank them. I wish I could be supportive of Principal Slemp’s leadership but that hope faded with experience. In my efforts to find any accountability, I have taken these issues to the superintendent, school board members and district supervisors. I wish their good intentions were enough. When I discussed concerns with Superintendent Lawrence, her response was, as always, “I agree, but you have to understand, the district is working on its operational readiness, we will eventually get there.” 

BPD is the same, the chief is more apt to make anecdotal comments suggesting incidents are up or down rather than present verifiable data, and the mayor accepts this as meaningful information. How does that improve service, support justice or manage the risk? It all starts at the top. I fully expect the BUSD public information officer Coplan or board members to respond here in the paper, and try and correct my statements, but just maybe this will motivate them to action.