Off-Campus Muggings Escalate at Berkeley High

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday January 14, 2009 - 06:50:00 PM

At least two Berkeley High students were arrested and another student was sent to the Berkeley Police Department Youth Services Division for disciplinary action in the weeks before Christmas break for a string of strong-arm robberies of Berkeley High School students in and around Martin Luther King Civic Center Park. 

The robberies have alarmed school and city officials and parents, who said they don’t understand how such brazen acts took place in the shadow of City Hall, with bike cops routinely patrolling the area. 

A total of seven robberies, carried out through strong-arm tactics or threats, were reported to the Berkeley police in November and December, and a Berkeley High senior was arrested on Dec. 16 as the suspect in both cases. He is being held in Juvenile Hall for multiple counts of robbery, said Officer Andrew Frankel, spokesperson for the Berkeley Police Department. 

The second incident in the series, which took place in November, was not reported to the police until the victim, a male Berkeley High student, learned about the suspect’s arrest in December. In this instance, the student said he was hanging out in Civic Center Park, which overlooks Berkeley High and City Hall, at around 3:45 p.m. on Nov. 18, when he was approached by the senior, who “threatened to kick his ass” if he didn’t give him his iPod. The student complied, Frankel said, and, although there were other people in the park, no one reported it at the time. 

Two more robberies were reported on Dec. 10. In the first one, at 3:50 p.m., a group of students—including the Berkeley High senior who was arrested and another student—approached two male students in the park. 

Two students in the group demanded a cell phone or some cash from one of the students, and when he tried to walk away they pushed him to the ground, at which point the student gave them his money, and the group left the park. 

The second robbery of the day took place two-and-a-half hours later, when a sophomore was asked to give up his iPod and his wallet by the same senior and his accomplice, a sophomore, who has been sent to the Youth Services Division. 

“We arrested various individuals during this particular series of muggings, some of them high school-aged juveniles, and they are being disciplined in the appropriate manner, which could be anything between expulsion and suspension,” said school Safety Officer Billy Keys. 

Eyewitness evidence played an important part in the arrests, said Keys, who has worked as a safety officer at Berkeley High for 19 years. 

“To me it is alarming if any high school student is assaulted or harassed,” he said. “What is more alarming is that [the incidents] happened during the day, when these students were around friends and when they were surrounded by three or four buildings always full of adults. They did not happen in the dark, in secret.” 

School Safety Officer Keys said that school authorities had noticed a sudden spike in off-campus muggings in November, leading to investigation by both Berkeley High School and Berkeley police. 

“The School Safety Committee is working to develop some possible goals, and we are sending out notices and pamphlets to parents about what to do in case something like this occurs again,” he said. 

According to authorities, the perpetrators—mainly juniors and seniors—stuck to “give me your iPod or wallet” kind of threats and often resorted to bullying to intimidate their victims, who were either freshmen or sophomores. 

Keys said that he didn’t suspect any gang activity, adding that, after the last series of arrests in December, things have cooled down. 

Security has also been increased, he said, with Berkeley police stepping up patrol after school hours. 

Calls to Berkeley High’s Dean of Students Alejandro Ramos for comment were not returned. 

Berkeley Board of Education President John Selawsky said he would be taking up the issue with Superintendent Bill Huyett next week. 

“Obviously for me, student safety is very important,” he said. “We need to coordinate with the city and the Police Department to figure out a way to make the park a safe place. If there is an increase in activity there, I take it seriously and the district takes it seriously.” 

Selawsky said that during his eight years on the School Board, he had witnessed similar incidents at certain “hot spots” in downtown Berkeley, such as the now-closed Ross store and Games of Berkeley. 

“Since these are all moving targets, it’s hard to get a handle on it entirely,” he said. “But since Civic Center Park is right across from Berkeley High, it should be easier to monitor it.” 

Julie Sinai, chief of staff for Mayor Tom Bates and a Berkeley High parent, said she had received a couple of phone calls from concerned citizens, one of them being the parent of a student who had been robbed. 

Sinai said the mayor had raised the issue with City Manager Phil Kamlarz and Berkeley Chief of Police Doug Hambleton and was waiting for a response. 

“I am absolutely astounded,” Sinai said. “I go out there all the time to shuttle my own child, and I am curious how all of this is happening right under the watchful eyes of the bicycle cops. It’s totally unacceptable.” 

Margit Roos Collins, a Berkeley High parent and member of the School Safety Committee, said that the committee was working on a plan to get correct information about crime out to parents in a quick and efficient manner. 

“Our biggest effort this year on the crime front is to make sure we are all looking at the right data,” she said. “Something that will help us to look at a crime blotter on the Berkeley High e-tree so that people knew what was happening in real time and could talk to their kids to keep them safe. More information is better for all sorts of purposes.” 

Don Morgan, another parent-member of the Safety Committee, said that plans were in the pipeline for a crime subcommittee, which would focus on analyzing data about crime at Berkeley High. 

“Right now we get secondhand data, either through word of mouth or the newspaper, instead of getting accurate and timely data through the Police Department,” he said. 

Morgan said that a service—similar to the crime alerts issued by Councilmember Laurie Capitelli in his district to those who sign up for his mailing lists—for the entire Berkeley High community would be a big help. 

Parents receive some crime data from the school’s interim data system (SASI), but according to Morgan it deals predominantly with on-campus disruptions, fights and thefts, and is often unreliable because incidents are underreported. 

On Thursday afternoon, a group of students sat at Civic Center Park eating lunch, and, when asked by a Planet reporter about the recent muggings, admitted hearing about them. 

“One of my friends got mugged,” said one student who asked not to be identified. “I think it happens because people leave their backpacks and iPods out in the open all the time.