Berkeley security officers patrol hallways. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

It was 2:10 pm on a warm Thursday afternoon and the Berkeley High detention center was hopping.

The school’s security team had done a sweep of the park across from the high school and had netted 13 students who had cut class. Now the truant teenagers sat in desks before a blank white board, quietly talking to one another as they waited for their parents to be notified.

Ardarius McDonald, the dean of students and the man who supervises the school’s security detail, came into the room, clearly not pleased – but not surprised –by the crowd. After all, it was close to 80 degrees that day, one of the first nice days after nearly two weeks of rain, and, as he pointed out, some teenagers have a hard time resisting the lure of the sun.

Just a day earlier, Berkeley High had gone on lockdown after a parent reported that she had seen a young person with a gun outside on Martin Luther King Avenue. McDonald and his team immediately rushed into action, locking all the school’s entrances, ordering students in classrooms on the west side of campus to stay away from the windows, and fanning out to prearranged spots on the 14-acre campus as Berkeley police investigated. It was the fourth gun-related incident in a week at the high school, including one on March 22 where two students shot off a gun in a bathroom.

The upsurge in violence has shone a spotlight on Berkeley High’s security detail. While no one has been hurt on campus this year, some parents have wondered if the school is adequately prepared for a serious gun event. Others contend that the school turns a blind eye to intimidation. Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Matthew Golde voiced these concerns last week when he stood up at a community forum and suggested that armed robberies were common at Berkeley High and that dangerous people wandered its halls.

It’s a concern that McDonald understands – but refutes. Berkeley High is generally a safe place, he said. Sure, wallets and iPods are stolen too often, but “there are no switchblade fights in the halls.”

Ardarius McDonald

“I know Matt Golde,” said McDonald, who has held his current role for a little more than a year. “He is loose with the truth.” (Matt Golde did not respond to Berkeleyside’s attempts to contact him.)

There are 14 security officers at Berkeley High (two have been added in the last two weeks) and a uniformed Berkeley police officer who works four days a week. As the principal mediators of conflict for the school’s 3,200 students, the officers in the department of On Campus Intervention play many roles. In the best of times they just talk to students, checking in to see how they are doing and gauging the mood of the student body. They also look for truants, break up fights, resolve conflicts, and monitor the hallways during class to ensure students don’t leave unless they have permission.

They are also investigators. When someone reports a theft, they take a report. When a student is intimidated in a hallway or forced to hand over a phone or other pricey object, the security officers try and determine the identity of the perpetrators.

“I make an analogy with NASCAR races,” said McDonald. “Sometimes there are blowouts. Sometimes people run out of gas. Sometimes there is a wreck. We are like the pit crew. Our job is not to hold you there, but to put you back on track.  My philosophy of OCI is to get you back on track as quickly as possible.”

Ginny Roemer, a former district attorney in San Francisco and the parent of a BHS freshman, said this approach, a desire to almost befriend students who get into trouble, means that serious crimes are not rigorously investigated.

“If there is an institutional acceptance of crime the kids are going to keep stealing,” she said. “I am concerned about the lack of law enforcement behind the gates of Berkeley High.”

One thing McDonald is clear on: the security officers are not police. While his safety officers have a protocol to investigate reports of a student with a gun, and have plenty of experience searching and seizing guns from backpacks, lockers, and waistbands, they call police for any serious incidents. There is one uniformed cop on duty and the Berkeley police department is just a half a block away.

“If you have the report of a gun you call the police,” said McDonald. “We don’t call 911. We have a direct connection to the Berkeley police.”

Berkeley High Principal Pasquale Scuderi concurred with that assessment.

“We do not have individuals on campus whose role is to disarm a suspect,” said Scuderi. “If you are asking me if we have personnel on campus who can do the same thing as a weapons special unit, we do not.”

California law requires all school districts to develop a plan that will keep students safe on campus. It also requires that on-campus security officers receive around 20 hours of training in conflict resolution and emergency response. So far this year, BHS security officers have had three days of professional development, including one day where they trained with a Berkeley police sergeant on how to respond to someone shooting on campus, according to Susan Craig, the director of student services for the Berkeley Unified School District. In June, the officers will do a three-day workshop with Phillip Mullendore. His Institute for Campus Safety trains on-campus officers to respond to gun threats.

But it may not be enough. In the wake of the recent gun incidents, the Berkeley police department has recommended that the school’s safety officers get additional training. While neither the police nor the school district has outlined specifics, the recommendations may include getting the security officers better uniforms, equipment and training in tactical issues like using radio communications and adding new restraint techniques, said Scuderi.

“They want to see (the security officers ) as a more uniformed and professional presence,” he said.

Berkeley school officials are also considering requiring students to wear ID cards, closing the campus during lunch, better monitoring the park across the street, and bringing in more programs to help students talk about guns and conflict. The school also recently installed an anonymous phone line for students to report gun sightings and other crimes. The district is not considering metal detectors

The structure of Berkeley’s security team resembles that of many Bay Area high schools.

James Logan High School, a school of 4,000 students in Union City, about 15 miles south of Berkeley, has about eight or nine security officers for its campus, according to Rick La Plante, the spokesman for the New Haven Unified School District. There are no uniformed police officers on campus.

But the high school has taken some other steps in recent years to improve security. While there are no metal detectors, the school permanently closed most of the entrances to campus, only leaving three doors from which students can enter or depart. They must show an identification card in order to enter, although they do not have to display their ID during the day. In addition, the school has strict laws about wearing any clothing that can be considered gang-related, he said. That includes the wearing of red, white, or blue cloth belts, red or blue shoe laces, University of Nebraska or red New York Yankees jerseys or hats, or notched eyebrows.

The Oakland Unified School District has 12 full-time uniformed police officers on duty, as well as a number of safety officers, according to Troy Flint, the district’s director of public relations. There are no metal detectors in any school, but two of the smaller high schools, Castlemont and Fremont, which have 700 and 600 students each, have closed campuses at lunch. The other schools don’t have lunchrooms large enough to accommodate the number of students, he said.

McDonald said Berkeley High is already doing some of these things, although he expects additional safety improvements in the coming weeks. The high school has 14 entrances, and most are permanently closed. During the day, after students are in school, only three entrances are open – the front door, the A gate, and the Milvia gate, he said. More get opened at lunch.

The 14 security officers have set positions around campus and constantly communicate via walkie-talkie, he said.

“We don’t ignore anything,” said McDonald. “We go home at the end of the day drained.”

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 Created California, published in November...