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Dear Students: Stop Robbing, Start Learning (Please) (News Analysis)

By Thomas Lord
Wednesday August 24, 2011 - 10:28:00 AM

On behalf of the Berkeley Daily Planet I spoke with Director of Student Services Susan Craig. I asked her to help us understand the Berkeley High School's policies about robbery reporting. How does the district exercise its discretion about calling in the police? And why? 

Test Your Knowledge! 

Quick quiz: When a Berkeley High School student commits a robbery while under the jurisdiction of the school, which of the following is true: 

a) The school is legally required to call the police in. 

b) The school may choose to call in the police if it so desires. 

c) The school is legally required not to call the police in. 

d) It depends. The school has limited discretion. 

The answer is (d). The school is legally required to report some robberies such as those that involve weapons or sexual assaults. In other cases, the school has discretion so long as they apply that discretion equally and fairly to all students. 

So how does the school exercise its discretion? And why do they do it that way? 

The Why Part is Easy 

"Our goal," says Director Craig, "is ideally to direct students back to what they are here for: to learn." 

There is concern in the community, Craig points out, that over-eagerness to give students official criminal records, and to put them through the criminal justice system runs contrary to the goal of reducing crime and educating students. 

There is an opposing concern, Craig adds, that to in any way coddle student criminal behavior, such as by not reporting it to the police, is contrary to the goal of reducing crime and educating students. 

When pressed on how the district regards those polarized concerns, Craig is eager to suggest a graceful evasion: simply asking what is the best way to get the students back into a state of doing what they are there for - to learn. 

What's Changing? 

Craig says that Superintendent Bill Huyet, Principle Pasquale Scuderi and Craig herself have discussed how to exercise the school's discretion in reporting robberies. They did this in consultation with Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan. 

Those three school officials have issued new guidance about the school's reporting practices. When the school has discretion about reporting a robbery, the practice is now more explicitly to go ahead and inform the police. The police then have discretion about whether or not to pursue the incident as a criminal matter. 

Craig points out that this is not a change in policy but rather a change in the practice by which policy is routinely carried out. 

Checks and Balances 

To better understand what "report all robberies" implied compared to historical practice, I asked Craig some about some hypothetical situations. Here are our scenarios and her answers: 

Scenario 1: One student corners another and through physical intimidation takes a portable music player away. Is that reported? That's now the usual practice. 

Scenario 2: The same scenario but only a can of soda is stolen? Is that supposed to be reported? That's now the usual practice. 

Scenario 3: This time nothing is stolen but only the cornering and physical intimidation. Is that reported? It is a discretionary question: the school has no fixed practice to always report such an incident. 

A Criminal Record for a Can of Soda? 

With this practice, two nearly identical incidents may be treated very differently: a bully who steals a soda being reported, and one who does not possibly going unreported. 

Craig suggested another scenario that highlights the slight absurdity of the distinctions being drawn: Suppose that a student leaves a backpack in a locker room from which, while the student is away, valuable property is stolen. In the eyes of the law this is not a robbery - it's a theft. Such a theft is not something that would be automatically reported -- it is a discretionary question. 

The practice of reporting robberies to the police does not mean the police must treat every such incident as a crime to be prosecuted. Berkeley High School will normally report all of these incidents, but it is up to the police department whether or not they will act and, if so, how. As with the school district itself, the police department is required by law to treat all students equally and fairly when they decide which crimes to pursue and which not. 

Rumor and Innuendo 

We pointed out another community concern to Craig. In particular, we pointed out that some people seem to be saying that BHS and BUSD had misunderstood the laws about robbery reporting and student privacy. In this alternative view, the district and the high school are now making a policy change about crime reporting, giving up mistaken interpretations of the law, and perhaps coming into conformance with the law. 

Craig's understated response was "[That view] is not correct", which sums up our conclusion as well. The law is very clear that with limited exceptions such as crimes involving weapons or sexual assault, school's have discretion about whether or not to call in the police. Sometimes the most effective choice is to not criminalize a matter but rather to handle it as a school discipline issue. 

Big Brother Threat? 

One important reason that schools are not obligated to report every robbery to the police is to protect student privacy. As the district attempts to satisfy community concerns by reporting every robbery incident, it also puts student privacy at risk. 

If the Berkeley police are informed even of student committed robberies that clearly don't merit criminal prosecution, then the Berkeley police get the opportunity to accumulate sensitive personal data about various students. Even when a student is spared a criminal record, incidents that might otherwise have been handled privately within the school system will be the subject of reports to the police. 

Hey Kid. Yeah, You. 

The school officials and the police have taken some steps here to reassure a nervous public that they can and do work together to try to make the schools safe learning environments. 

Robberies have been a focal point of community criticism of the district and the high school. In response to that criticism, school officials have now made it more plainly explicit that the police and public prosecutors get a say in the handling of all student committed robberies. 

The school and the police must walk a delicate line to balance student civil rights against law enforcement. They are pulled between conflicting community concerns. 

The goal though is quite clear. It is not to shoulder as many youth as possible with criminal records and loss of privacy. It is also not to coddle criminals. Very simply: 

"The goal is ideally to direct students back to what they are here for: to learn." 

Some unsolicited advice to the youth of today: Cut the crap, kid, and hit the books.