Berkeley High School: administrators work closely with the county's probation department

None of the 35 Berkeley High School students who are on probation was involved with the recent spate of gun incidents at the school, according to Alameda County’s top probation official.

Despite the fears of some parents that those who have previously been arrested are a rogue element in the school and largely responsible for the guns, this is not the case, said officials.

“There have been no youth on probation who were arrested for gun charges at Berkeley High,” said David Muhammad, the chief probation officer for Alameda County. “When things like this happen, the easy scapegoat is young people who have been in trouble before.  If you don’t have all the facts, it becomes an easy population to demonize.”

It is not helpful to lump all the kids on probation into one group and label them, as each has a different situation, said Muhammad, who was hired just six weeks ago to clean up and modernize a troubled department.

“It is not unreasonable to ask what is going on with these young people, but we should be careful before we scapegoat them,” he said.

Helping these kids is a challenge, though, as the department’s resources are dangerously thin – and might become thinner still now that Gov. Jerry Brown’s attempts to hold a special June election to extend taxes have fallen apart, said Muhammad.

California has one of the worst funded probation systems in the country, with Alameda County (along with Sacramento) being one of the lowest funded counties in the state, said Muhammad.

There are 15,000 adults and 2,000 juveniles on probation in Alameda County and only 190 probation officers to oversee them — an 89 to 1 ratio. In Contra Costa County, in contrast, there are 125 probation officers for the county’s 7,000 people on probation – a 56 to 1 ratio.

The students on probation at Berkeley High are monitored according to their perceived risk factors, said Muhammad. Probation officials examine the type of crime they committed, their number of arrests, their home living situation, their drug use, their mental health status, and other factors.

Those who are given a low to medium risk ranking get the least supervision, he said. They mostly have to check in with the probation department and appear sporadically before a judge.

Those rated as high risk get frequent visits from their probation officers, get cognitive behavioral therapy twice a week, and learn conflict resolution and other life skills, said Muhammad. The department also contracts with Berkeley Youth Alternatives to provide preventative services.

These services, Muhammad admits, are still not enough.

“I am not happy with the level of support and services,” he said. “There is certainly more the probation department can do. There is more the community can do.”

Laura Menard, a former Berkeley High parent who served on the school’s safety committee, is critical of the way the Berkeley Unified School District tracks the students who are on probation. She said the school does not do a good enough job monitoring their activities and whereabouts.

Parents have been lobbying for years to get the district to come up with a comprehensive plan to address students on probation, but little has been done, said Menard. A promised meeting between the parents, Matthew Golde, the deputy district attorney in charge of Alameda County’s juvenile division, the police department, the probation department, and school officials keeps getting postponed, she said.

Susan Craig, the director of student services, said the district is aware of all the Berkeley students who are on probation and has a close working relationship with the probation department. The have been isolated instances, however, when a student on probation moves to Berkeley from another district. Sometimes there can be a lag before the district hears about that student’s probation status.

While students who bring a gun to school are automatically expelled, those who commit other crimes are not necessarily kicked out of school, said Craig. State law requires school districts to educate its youth, including those with arrest records.

“All Berkeley kids are our kids,” said Craig, whose office works closely with the probation department. “We need to try to work with turning kids around who are making mistakes. I am not minimizing serious offenses. Certainly guns are at the top of the list. But I have a concern about criminalizing students who have made mistakes. We can’t send students away indefinitely for offenses that have been committed and most offenses don’t call for that.”

Muhammad said many students bring guns to school because they think they offer protection. Since it’s easy to buy guns, and so many songs, videos, and television shows glorify them, there is a cultural atmosphere that makes gun-toting seem all right.

“If I feel like I live in a war zone then I am going to feel like I need to carry a weapon,” said Muhammad. “If I live in a more challenging neighborhood, like south Berkeley, which has been in a protracted war with north Oakland, then I may feel like I am living in a war zone and I am going to carry a weapon.”

“Some people think we can incarcerate our way out of problems,” said Muhammad. “Even the most hardened police officer knows we can’t incarcerate our way out. We have to look for other solutions.”

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...