A tree outside the Berkeley Zen Center has become a memorial to Nancy McClellan. Photo: Emilie Raguso
A tree outside the Berkeley Zen Center that became a memorial after one of its members was killed in broad daylight last fall. Authorities say a Berkeley Technology Academy student was responsible for the fatal attack. Photo: Emilie Raguso
A tree outside the Berkeley Zen Center that became a memorial after one of its members was killed in broad daylight last fall. Authorities say a Berkeley Technology Academy student was responsible for the fatal attack. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Berkeley school officials, police and the city are gearing up to work more closely on juvenile crime issues, both to improve information sharing and try to get services to youth who need them.

A small group of residents — part of the Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee (BSNC), an umbrella organization for neighborhood watch-type activities — got an update on the fledgling effort Monday night, though it had been announced for the first time in November.

Since then, Berkeley Police Capt. Andrew Greenwood said he has met with the city attorney to figure out what type of information can legally be shared. Greenwood also met a couple times with Susan Craig, director of Student Services for the Berkeley Unified School District — briefly, and in the context of other discussions — to figure out some of the logistics of the endeavor. But there have not yet been any official meetings of what had been pitched as a “working group,” and Greenwood left it an open question Monday as to whether those meetings will actually take place.

Former Mayor Shirley Dean, who runs the neighborhood group, told Greenwood that BSNC believes monthly meetings will be a critical component of the working group’s success, and said BSNC will continue to include the item on its agenda, and watch closely as the effort unfolds.

The November announcement came in the wake of several high-profile incidents involving Berkeley students at both Berkeley High and Berkeley Technology Academy (BTA), the district’s continuation high school, including what was described by authorities as a violent mob on Rally Day, the attempted rape and fatal attack in broad daylight of an elderly woman allegedly by a BTA student — a Richmond resident — who has been charged with the crime, and the discovery of a noose on the Berkeley High campus.

Those incidents, particularly the fatal attack, prompted questions from the community regarding how the Berkeley Unified School District tracks youth with criminal records, what it does to ensure safety on campus and in the surrounding neighborhoods, and how it communicates about critical issues with both the school community and the community at large.

In recent months the spate of violent incidents involving high school students in Berkeley has continued. In January, two students were injured and three youth were arrested after fights — which some described as an attack on a young man for his shoes — downtown.

A Berkeley High student from Richmond was arrested in late March after allegedly stabbing another BHS student in the back during lunch. The assailant was suspended, school officials said at the time of the incident. District spokesman Mark Coplan never responded to questions from Berkeleyside about the incident. Superintendent Donald Evans also ignored a request for comment about the case.

In April, five Berkeley Unified students were arrested — three from Berkeley High and two from BTA — in connection with youth fights downtown. The school principal told parents there were 15-20 fights within about 40 minutes, which involved 400-500 students and non-students. Later in the month, police arrested three people with a replica gun who said they had come to Berkeley to help with a fight. (The school principal restricted access to and from campus that day after officials learned of potential trouble involving students.)

The Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee met with police and school officials to discuss the issue of juvenile crime in early November and learned at that time of plans for the working group to address juvenile safety issues in the city. The group has been slow to launch, however, after protests in December demanded most of the department’s resources.

Greenwood said at that time that the working group would include city and school attorneys and officials to improve communication around youth crime in the city “with the ultimate goal of systematic automated notification” to the district from police about incidents known to involve BUSD students.

Given confidentiality laws that protect minors, Greenwood said the department needed to figure out “what we can do legally” to inform the district of criminal incidents involving its students, with the goal of providing better services to youth who need intervention.

Greenwood said, ideally, probation services, too, would be involved with the effort to strengthen communication and awareness about criminal incidents involving Berkeley Unified students. But he also described the Alameda County probation department as “heavily burdened,” and said it could be a challenge to coordinate efforts with the agency.

BUSD: Probation notification is “inconsistent”

Susan Craig, of Berkeley Unified’s Student Services office, told attendees in November that the probation department is required to notify the district about students under supervision. But she said notification is “inconsistent” from Alameda and other counties. She estimated that 30-40 students were on probation in the district at that time.

Craig said there are certain types of crimes — such as assaults, weapon possession, drug sales and threats to harm school staff — that must be reported to police. She told meeting attendees she had no estimate as to how many of those reports had been made to police as of November.

Former Mayor Dean, who organized the meeting, said having a central index of those reports that was readily accessible would be an improvement over the current system.

“If we don’t have a central index, how do we know what is happening?” Dean asked. “How do we know where the problems are in what schools?”

The idea of neighborhood watch-type meetings hosted by principals for residents around school campuses also came up, as suggested by Albert Bahn, a consultant who has completed two safety assessments for Berkeley Unified. He said in November that the approach has been effective in other areas.

Bahn said the meetings for police and school officials could also potentially include Child Protective Services and social services representatives to augment better data sharing among agencies. Having an informal monthly meeting to include those various stakeholders was one of the safety-related recommendations he previously made to the district. He said Napa and Contra Costa counties both take that approach.

Student residency, too, was a concern for meeting attendees. Bahn cautioned that people should not jump to conclusions about the residency of youth who commit crimes in Berkeley.

But attendees countered that the district must be more transparent about its approach to residency, and said other cities and counties have more “wrap-around” services in place for juveniles who need more support. They said bringing those students to Berkeley might, as a result, not offer the support those youth need if they hope to succeed in the long run.

Overall youth arrest numbers decline, but felony arrests increase

At the meeting, police shared juvenile arrest data for the past few years in Berkeley. As of September 2014, 83% of the youth arrested last year reportedly lived in Berkeley, up from 50% in 2011. Though overall juvenile arrests appeared to have been on the decline — from 218 in 2011 down to 89 in 2014, as of September — felony juvenile arrests have been on a largely upward trend: 56% of the total arrests in 2011, 64% in 2012, 76% in 2013, and 70% as of September 2014.

Police said 53% of those arrested as of September were attending a Berkeley school, up from a recorded 11% in 2011. But the data also were incomplete, with “non-BUSD or unknown” listed as the alternative category. One goal of the working group, authorities said, is to create a better tracking system for juvenile arrest data, which has been a significant community concern over the years.

Dean, in a letter from the Berkeley Safe Neighborhoods Committee following the Nov. 3 meeting, pushed for “the immediate establishment” of the working group, and an “automated, two-way, data-sharing system and processes designed to ensure that troubled students are identified and receive increased attention in the way of support from both schools and law enforcement.”

Dean emphasized that the committee’s main concerns were to get services to youth who need them, help neighbors know more about safety issues and improve transparency. She said Berkeley should look into better “school-linked services” — such as those in Napa and Contra Costa counties to coordinate police, school and probation efforts. And she also asked for better partnerships between the schools and broader community to help prevent crime.

Bahn recommended all of those approaches in his 2011 and 2013 reports for the district, Dean wrote. At the meeting in November, school district spokesman Mark Coplan declined to make those reports available to Berkeleyside, saying that could pose a threat to campus security. (Berkeleyside was able to track down one chapter of the 2013 report, which was part of a school board agenda in early 2014.)

Dean said Monday night that the district never replied to the BSNC letter or its recommendations.

Getting the information flowing

Monday night, Greenwood described the working group to the handful of meeting attendees as “kind of a victim at times of my own workload and what I’ve been dealing with.” (Greenwood recently took up oversight of the Berkeley Police Department’s patrol division, after its former captain, Erik Upson, left to become chief of the Benicia Police Department.)

Greenwood said that since November he and the city attorney have worked together to determine “the channels of information that can flow and the constraints in those channels” among Berkeley police, the Alameda County probation department and the school district. “Each channel and set of constraints on those channels… is different. Our city attorney has been working on that issue, of what we are allowed to tell the district, and what we are allowed to get in response. It’s very minimal.”

As he explained it, Greenwood said school districts that have their own police departments are allowed to share information more broadly than would be the case in Berkeley.

Greenwood said he would next review with Craig what the Berkeley city attorney had laid out regarding how much and what type of information can be shared. Greenwood said his main goal would then be to support Craig by ensuring that all three channels are “up and functioning properly.” He said he did not know whether or not that is currently the case.

Local resident Laura Menard, who attended the meeting, asked Greenwood if he could also look into whether the Contra Costa County probation department is also sharing information with Berkeley the way it should.

Greenwood got pushback from some meeting attendees when he said he wasn’t sure if monthly meetings would take place in the future or not.

“For me the priority is actually working out what we can do with those channels,” he said. “And then we go from there.”

Replied Dean: “I just want to make it clear that from the standpoint of BSNC… we’re hoping that this will be a monthly affair, that it will be an ongoing monthly affair that happens on a regular basis.”

Menard said Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan, former Capt. Upson and Greenwood all agreed before neighbors in November to have those regular meetings, with the focus to be tracking and sharing data for any juvenile arrested for a felony offense in Berkeley.

Dean asked Greenwood also to investigate whether the juvenile offenses can be tracked according to school and city of residence, to allow for a greater understanding of the patterns that exist for juvenile offenders in Berkeley.

Greenwood said he wasn’t sure whether that was possible but — after Menard pointed out that prior data provided by the Berkeley Police Department had included school and residency information to a certain extent — Greenwood committed to looking into that for the future.

Read more about Berkeley school safety issues in past Berkeleyside coverage.

BUSD poised to adopt tougher school enrollment policy (05.28.15)
Police arrest 3, with replica gun, tied to BHS fight (04.29.15)
Principal restricts access to Berkeley High because of reports that a fight might break out (04.29.15)
5 arrested in Berkeley after 15-20 youth fights downtown (04.10.15)
Update: 2 Berkeley High students injured, 3 arrested after fights downtown (01.22.15)
Teen now faces murder, attempted rape and robbery charges in South Berkeley killing (11.14.14)
BUSD superintendent: ‘We have much more work to do’ (11.06.14)
Woman killed in South Berkeley remembered as artist, humorist, lover of plants and pets (10.24.14)
Op-ed: After fatal stabbing, be the change in South Berkeley (10.08.14)
Berkeley teen, recent grad, shot to death in Oakland (07.14.14)
Illegal enrollment is boon and burden to Berkeley schools (04.08.14)
Berkeley schools implement $2M safety plan (01.27.14)
B-Tech graduation rate soars under inspired leadership (06.13.13)
Workshop urges action on gun violence around Berkeley (05.29.13)
Berkeley community remembers teen slain in Oakland (05.08.13)
Truancy high, but improving, at Berkeley High School (12.13.11)
Students see security changes at Berkeley High School (09.02.11)

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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 of the Year...