In a small conference room on the second floor of old City Hall, a group of school administrators, parents, students, police and safety officers have met regularly over the past nine weeks to debate how to tackle the issue of guns at Berkeley High.
They have talked about the colors gang members wear – and whether gangs pose an issue at the school. They have argued about whether to close the campus, and how a cafeteria equipped to hold 500 would serve 3,200 students a day. They have talked about making school security officers more identifiable, how to encourage students to wear ID badges, and how teaching students about the dangers of guns might be critical to stopping the presence of weapons on campus. They have agreed that metal detectors just won’t work.
Thursday is the last day of school at Berkeley High and on Friday more than 800 seniors will walk across the stage at the Greek Theater to receive their diplomas. As the school year winds down, the group, known as the Ad Hoc Safety Committee, is working hard to complete its discussions. On June 22, the committee will review a draft of its recommendations, with plans to present the plan to the Berkeley Unified school board on June 29.
After seven students were caught with guns at Berkeley High and B-Tech in the first three months of 2011, the district took a number of steps to try and improve security at the high school. They hired more safety officers for BHS, increased the days a Berkeley police officer is on campus from four to five, closed some gates on campus, and held a number of forums with students about the danger of guns. One of the major steps – and one with the highest PR value – was the creation of a committee that would bore down into difficult topics and come up with a set of recommendations.
But what is seen as the slow pace of the committee, its high turnover, and perceived lack of organization has frustrated some of its members – as well as some board members and the public. The issue came to a head on May 25, when BUSD board member Karen Hemphill complained at a school board meeting about what she characterized as the drift of the committee, a claim that Superintendent Bill Huyett denied.
“The community was looking for a plan, immediate steps, and I meant this year or as soon as possible,” said Hemphill, according to the Oakland Tribune. “Our safety committee we formed is saying attendance is poor, the group is adrift. There are number of issues being raised by members.”
Huyett called that statement “political,” according to the Tribune.
“I want Berkeley to hear this,” said Huyett. “If we want to solve the problem, we need to be engaged. The district has responded exceptionally well. If they think the committee is drifting, let them say that in committee. We have done exactly what we were asked to do: come up with a plan by the end of the year and form a committee and give you updates every other week.”
The Ad Hoc Safety Committee has consulted with a number of professionals about how to reduce the number of guns on campus, including a school security expert and groups that address bullying. It has also reached out to other school districts to learn their approach to the problem. The bulk of the work, however, has been done by the committee itself. It has taken time for the committee to find its focus, but it has vastly improved in recent weeks, according to one member who asked not to be named.
Huyett and his staff will be writing up the set of recommendations to present to the school board, but made it clear Wednesday that the committee is only advisory. Huyett’s recommendations will be the ones presented to the school board.
“This is an advisory committee,” Huyett told the group. “Susan (Craig, director of Student Services) and I are taking in your advice. We will come back with what is a reflection of your advice and what the administration thinks it should do.”
But Huyett added he is in agreement with what the committee has suggested and doesn’t think there will be the need to present a dissenting, minority report.