Professor Victor Rios (left) credits Berkeley Unified teacher Flora Russ (right) with helping steer him away from gangs and into a successful future. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Professor Victor Rios (left) credits Berkeley High staffer Flora Russ (right) with helping steer him away from gangs and toward a successful future. Photo: Emilie Raguso

A Berkeley High alum came back to school Thursday, after nearly two decades, to speak with students about the importance of resisting violence and standing up for each other in the face of bullying.

Victor Rios, now an associate professor in UC Santa Barbara’s sociology department, described to students how tough times in his teens — including temporarily dropping out of school and watching two loved ones get killed — nearly derailed his future.

Rios said it was mainly due to the efforts of Berkeley High staffer Flora Russ, who founded a small school in the district with an emphasis on serving at-risk students, that he didn’t end up in prison or dead.

Rios and Russ were among five people honored Thursday during two all-school assemblies organized by Berkeley High English teacher Alan Miller.

Miller said it was the first all-school assembly in more than 10 years. He said recurrent gun violence in the Bay Area spurred him, about a year ago, to begin planning this week’s events. It was also an opportunity, said Miller, to recognize the efforts of a group of people with Berkeley ties who have dedicated their lives to try to address the problem of violence.

Thursday’s assembly, which took place in the school main theater, included three parts. In the first section, a student read a five-page script written by Miller while drama students acted out its scenes in freeze frames. The script included a series of narratives, all true, said Miller, about ways violence has touched students’ lives.

In one: “I was from Eritrea, and I loved Berkeley High. And everybody loved me! What could you not love about me. I’m handsome, intelligent, college-bound, daring… A teacher told me that word — daring — in my EL class and I wrote it down this little spiral notebook I keep in my back pocket. I loved homecoming and being a senior. (I especially loved it because I loved being LOUD.) I would shout it from the rooftops. ‘Life is wonderful in America.’ So, of course, I loved Thanksgiving — until the day my sister’s husband destroyed any chance I had at a future. My classmates made a picture book about my life and raised money to bury me in my homeland.”

Went another: “Twice in three days recently, dudes pulled guns on people to get their Jordans. The last one was on the Ohlone Trail, the one that leads to Berkeley. I love my Jordans. They are cool. They are like turquoise and orange.… A combination that shouldn’t go together, but does. Who’da thunk it? I have maybe five outfits that match those shoes, but if some guy pull a gun on me, he can have them shoes. Man, I’ll even lace ’em up for you.”

Students acted out a scene about a robbery over a pair of shoes as part of Thursday's anti-gun-violence assembly. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Students acted out a scene about a robbery over a pair of shoes as part of Thursday’s anti-gun-violence assembly. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The script began and ended with the same paragraph, in the voice of a student addressing a teacher: “I am going to miss class for a few days. I know that it’s finals coming up, and this is like the most important part of the year so far. So I don’t really want to. But did you see the news last night? That story about the guy/ that man/ that dude/ that woman/ that mother/ that father of four/ that college student/ that janitor/ that vendor/ that football player/ that got shot? In East Oakland? In Richmond? In West Berkeley? In Vallejo? San Jose? San Francisco? That was my uncle/ cousin/ brother/… That was my best friend.”

Miller said it’s a story that’s all too familiar in the community: “I can’t say every teacher’s heard that, but if you’ve been around here more than five years it’s a story you’ve heard.” So last year Miller asked Principal Pasquale Scuderi to send him to a training about how to combat gun violence. After the training, Miller got in touch with Rios, one of his former students, who now travels the country as a motivational speaker.

Students' shadows were projected onto a screen as they acted out images of violence. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Students’ shadows were projected onto a screen as they acted out images of violence. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Rios, 35, took the stage after the drama students and impressed upon the audience the importance of becoming what he called “proactive bystanders” and “violence interrupters.” It’s your responsibility, he told them, to speak out against violence and bullying, either at the time or to school staff later, and not be rendered silent due to fear of “snitching.”

According to a proclamation presented to Rios on Thursday, the Bay Area native joined a gang at age 13 and had dropped out of school by 16 after having been incarcerated several times. Rios stole cars and spent his days in the streets, “being victimized and victimizing other people,” he said. He witnessed the murders of his best friend and, several months later, his uncle. Both were shot to death. Throughout his presentation, he wove together stories from his past, of his struggles in the community and at Berkeley High, with a message to stand up and speak out.

"My best friend was shot and killed in front of me," Rios told students. "These huge acts of violence don't happen in a vacuum." Photo: Emilie Raguso
“My best friend was shot and killed in front of me,” Rios told students. “These huge acts of violence don’t happen in a vacuum.” Photo: Emilie Raguso

Rios told students that serious incidents of violence begin with “small pebbles” that build up, such as bullying and fighting. He recalled, as a freshman, being challenged by 18-year-olds to prove himself through fighting. He told students that, whether they knew it or not, violence had affected them and even determined where they sat on Thursday.

“The last time I was in this auditorium I was sitting in the balcony… Do you know why you’re no longer allowed to sit in the balcony? I was sitting up there and a group of about 20 guys tried to push me over,” Rios told the students. As part of his presentation he showed several stills from the 1994 documentary School Colors, which includes video of the balcony incident, and images of Rios fighting in Berkeley High’s hallways. “It’s that fear of violence that doesn’t allow the school to allow you to sit there. Violence affects us all. It’s time to be there for each other to back each other up.”

After he dropped out, Rios said it was the persistance of Flora Russ that got him back into school. She sought him out at home and repeatedly told him, even when he disrespected her and told her off,  that she’d be there for him when he was ready. He returned to Berkeley High after two semesters away, but continued to get into fights. After one incident, he said, he went to class still shaken, and his economics teacher dropped the day’s lesson and focused the class on a dialogue about how Rios could make a change.

His fellow students said he should start hanging out with a different crowd that was going to keep him out of trouble, and urged him to tell school staff about what was going on, even though it went against his “code.” He recalled a football player who told him: “You just need to start hanging out with us during lunchtime. Then nobody’s gonna mess with you.”

He continued: “And you know what, young people, at that moment — junior year, second semester — is when I felt that Berkeley High School, that the Yellow Jackets, had my back. That all of you were stepping in to interrupt the violence.” After that, he said, when people would try to mess with him in the halls, students would speak up for him, and counselors started talking with the people who were giving him grief. He was able to catch up on his credits and graduate with his class. He didn’t have any plans for college until Russ got him motivated, and he ultimately was accepted to Cal State, Hayward. He went on to get his master’s and his doctorate degrees at U.C. Berkeley.

“If we can begin to interrupt violence in our school, we can begin to interrupt violence in the world,” he said.

Event emcee Lady Estell asked anyone in the room who'd seen a gun or been affected by violence to stand up. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Toward the end of the assembly, event emcee Lady Estell asked anyone in the room who’d seen a gun or been affected by violence to stand up. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Following Rios’ presentation, event emcee Lady Estell — known for her work with youth in San Francisco — called Rios, Russ, a school safety officer and local father Griffin Dix up to the stage to be recognized for their efforts to fight violence in the community. Dix’s son, Kenzo, was a Berkeley High freshman in 1994 when he was accidentally shot to death by his best friend. Since then, Dix has become a national advocate to improve gun safety. Michael McBride, a local pastor in Berkeley, was recognized for spearheading numerous anti-violence initiatives, though he was unable to attend the event due to an emergency.

After the session ended, senior Stantasia Dossman, 17, said Rios’ talk made her feel a greater sense of responsibility to speak up when conflicts arise. Friend Brandy Johnson, also 17 and a senior, said Rios got his message across.

“People really felt where he was coming from,” she said, adding that, in general, the campus feels safe and that she doesn’t see many troubling incidents at school.

Other students said instances of violence do arise, and that it will be a challenge to change a culture that often seems to glamorize violence — in the media, movies and video games. Senior Bijan White, 18, recalled a moment at the end of the assembly where students began to laugh and joke as Lady Estell asked them to stand up if they’d witnessed or been affected by gun violence.

“She said, ‘I don’t know why you’re laughing.’ But some people do take violence as a joke,” said White, adding that he’s seen crowds of his classmates gather around fights in excitement, rather than try to break them up. “It’s disturbing.”

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...