Photo- Jackson Grigsby
Students demonstrated last week after the discovery of a racist, threatening statement on a Berkeley High computer. Photo: Jackson Grigsby

The student who posted an inflammatory and racist statement on a Berkeley High School library computer last week was a student of color, according to a school district spokesman. But the student, a male freshman, was not black, according to a city staffer familiar with the case.

BHS Principal Sam Pasarow told the high school staff that the student was “a student of color,” but did not specify which race, according to Mark Coplan, spokesman for the Berkeley Unified School District. Authorities have said they are not releasing identifiable details about the student because they fear retaliation.

Coplan also revealed new details about how the racist, threatening message was discovered Nov. 4, the process Pasarow took to determine the culprit, and the timing of the message Pasarow sent to the community about the incident.

A parent volunteer in the library spotted the image while the student was sitting at the computer since the font was so large and the words captured the volunteer’s attention, said Coplan. The volunteer immediately notified library staff, and the student was detained and taken to Pasarow’s office, said Coplan. This was around 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 4.

“There is nothing that indicates that the student intended to post it,” he said. “The student was creating a document. A volunteer spotted the document because the wording was so big and brought it to the attention to the staff.”

Pasarow spent the next few hours talking to the student while a forensics team secured the computer to try to confirm who had posted the statement. During this time the student did not admit he did it, Coplan said.

Later, the student did reportedly take responsibility for the message.

Pasarow did not send a communiqué immediately because he was trying to determine what was going on. Since the student was in his office, Pasarow did not believe there was an active threat of violence on campus, said Coplan.

Unbeknownst to Pasarow, someone took a photograph of the offensive image and sent it to members of the Berkeley High School Black Student Union. Students shared the image on Twitter and Facebook and began to question why Pasarow and BUSD had delayed announcing the situation. A student told Berkeleyside it was a substitute teacher who distributed the image to students after receiving it from another teacher.

Coplan said he does not know who took the photo, or what role that individual might have at BHS.

“I haven’t heard any teacher referred to, just someone from BHS. Whomever captured that was someone in the vicinity of [the library] and shared it with BSU and tweeted it,” he said.

If the image had not been released by the BSU, Pasarow would not have said anything to the community immediately because he did not consider there to be a threat looming, said Coplan. He would have announced it later after he had thoroughly investigated the situation. As it was, Pasarow spent the day trying to get to the bottom of the situation and was not able to put out an email until around 10:30 p.m., said Coplan.

“Sam has apologized for not reaching out sooner, but it would not have been at 12:30 p.m.,” said Coplan.

The student will be penalized, but Coplan would not discuss the specifics of the punishment. It could range from restorative justice to expulsion, he said.

Pasarow did refer the incident to the Berkeley Police Department because he regards the act as a hate crime, said Coplan. At the same time, Pasarow does not think the student had any violent intent.

But the vitriol expressed in the image shocked many at BHS, he said. The messages called for a public lynching Dec. 9 and indicated support for the KKK.

“The vile nature of the language is beyond any age,” said Coplan. “I was shocked and stunned at the level of the hate for anybody at the high school level. Based on the level of the language used, even what the intent was is immaterial.”

Berkeley police are still investigating the case, according to Officer Byron White, a BPD spokesman.

Pasarow said, during a press conference last Thursday, that the student was believed to have been acting alone. The press event followed a peaceful protest and walkout undertaken by more than 700 students earlier in the day.

Pasarow announced last week that he will hold an all-school assembly at Berkeley High on Dec. 9 that will focus on the contributions of the African-American community. He said there will be a room set aside for black students and teachers to create a safe space.

Thursday, Nov. 12, students around the country are planning the Million Student March to demand tuition-free public college, the cancellation of student debt and a $15 minimum wage for campus workers. A demonstration is planned on the UC Berkeley campus at 2 p.m. Coplan said there had been some indication Berkeley High School students might join the march. He said both Superintendent Donald Evans and BUSD board member Karen Hemphill were meeting with BHS Black Student Union leaders Thursday morning to assess what plans there were, if any.

This story was updated after publication with new information regarding the Berkeley Million Student March. It was also updated to state that Berkeley police are still investigating the case. An earlier version said the matter had already been turned over to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office. It has not. 

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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...