Berkeley High Plans Safety Overhaul

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday April 23, 2009 - 07:12:00 PM

Berkeley High School officials plan to ramp up safety and security measures as a result of multiple written complaints from members of the school’s Safety Committee earlier this year.  

In an April 3 letter to the committee, district Manager of Student Welfare and Attendance Javier Mendieta said then-acting Principal Maggie Heredia-Peltz had responded to various safety issues in the complaints, and presented specific resolutions that she said Berkeley High administration and staff will follow up on.  

The issues include better communication with students and parents regarding crime, greater visibility for school safety staff, increased number of resources officers and improved incident-reporting practices.  

Don Morgan, a parent and member of the Safety Committee, said several of the issues addressed by Heredia-Peltz were included in an updated version of Berkeley High’s safety plan approved by the School Governance Council April 14 and scheduled to be taken up by the Berkeley Board of Education in May.  

The school, Heredia-Peltz said in her response, will begin notifying parents and staff via email or through the Parent, Teacher and Student Association newsletter of “violent crime incidents on campus, during lunch or after school,” as recommended by the Safety Committee.  

“Instead of having to deal with rumors, everybody has the right information,” PTSA President Mark van Krieken said. “People can relax more when they get information like that. Before, we’d have to get in touch with the Police Department and school authorities, and even then people would try to run information down.”  

Some high school parents said they had found the two alerts sent out by Heredia-Peltz in February helpful. The alerts concerned a possible gun incident on campus and a minor fire alarm.  

“Whether these improvements will continue under Principal Slemp or not, we will have to wait and see,” Morgan said.  

Margit Roos-Collins, another parent and Safety Committee member, said she hopes the school makes the alerts a permanent feature.  

“It’s dumb not to,” she said.  

District Superintendent Bill Huyett called the alerts a “good practice,” adding that he supported the school’s response to the complaints.  

“Some of these things can be put into effect immediately,” he said.  

Neither Heredia-Peltz nor Berkeley High Principal Jim Slemp—who is back on the job after a medical leave—returned calls for comment.  

Heredia-Peltz also said Berkeley High was exploring recommendations by the Safety Committee to have the school’s safety officers wear easily identifiable uniforms, which would help tell them apart from criminals, but the matter would have to be negotiated with the union first.  

“It will help everybody know who the safety officers are—if they are part of the problem or adults trying to help,” van Krieken said.  

Huyett said that both the Safety Committee and the Berkeley Police Department had made a request for the uniforms.  

In response to the committee’s call for additional school resource officers who would work with Berkeley police to address crime, Heredia-Peltz said the school was working with the Berkeley Police Department to coordinate services when Officer Mitch Collins, the current school resource officer, is unavailable. Collins works at the school four days a week.  

A school resource officer is a Berkeley police officer assigned to Berkeley High to advise students who witness or are victimized in a campus crime.  

Huyett explained that while additional resources might not be possible this year given the district’s budget deficit, there was money from safety grants for new uniforms.  

“I am extremely happy they are moving forward with it,” said Roos-Collins. “I just hope they don’t spend the money signing off on uniforms before consulting with the Police Department.”  

The school will also implement a more prominent incident-reporting program which will allow people to confidentially report incidents immediately in case they fear retribution. Morgan said students would be able to fill out forms easily available at the front desk to complain about thefts, fights, bullying and harassment.  

The administration, he said, would have to lay out clear plans about how they implemented “stop cards”—a card filled out by safety officers when they encountered nonstudents.  

“What is not clear to us is what happens with the stop cards, what is the procedure stop cards are part of,” he said. “The language provided by the administration is very vague when it comes to the legal requirements issuing restraining orders. That was something committee members were interested in pursuing this year but were not able to get around to.”  

The updated version of the safety plan aims to reduce robberies and thefts by 20 percent.  

The school reported a large number of strong-arm robberies in and around Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park last fall. Morgan said that although the string of robberies was curtailed by arrests, thefts continue to occur around campus.  

The committee also hopes to decrease physical and verbal altercations by 20 percent and cut back on drug and alcohol use by 10 percent. Survey results from the 2008 California Healthy Kids Survey show self-reported drug and alcohol use at Berkeley High to be twice the national average.  

The school also plans to craft a more comprehensive disaster plan to deal with earthquakes and other natural disasters.  

Roos-Collins said that although the high school had carried out the number of fire and earthquake drills required by state law, it was still working on finalizing a disaster plan.  

“The school has always had an emergency plan, but it ended with evacuation,” she said. “We never had a disaster plan—something we need when neither the Fire Department nor Police Department will come to our help. The Safety Committee is working on a disaster plan, but we still have a long way to go.”  

Morgan said he hoped Berkeley High would also adopt a more open and transparent approach to improve the membership process for the Safety Committee.  

“There have been issues about who should represent parents, which has caused the meetings to not achieve the kind of success we anticipated,” he said. “Some members have resigned after being frustrated at the speed we were making progress. We want to welcome as many parents and teachers as possible.”  

The committee currently has five to six parents, at least one teacher and several administrators, including Heredia-Peltz and Dean of Students Alejandro Ramos, who serves as chair.