Berkeley High police cruiser. Photo: Emilie Raguso
The Berkeley Unified School District has one school resource officer. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The Berkeley School Board said a resounding “no” to a proposal to add a second police officer to its campus roster during a discussion earlier this month about ways to address safety and racial tension on campus.

The proposal, from Superintendent Donald Evans, was among a group of ideas collected from the community in December following several race-related incidents at Berkeley High in recent years, including the hanging of a noose on campus, disparaging statements that were slipped into the school yearbook last spring, and racial threats posted on a school computer in the fall.

Scroll down to see what’s on tonight’s School Board agenda.

The Berkeley Police Department had won a Department of Justice grant for $125,000 over a three-year period to help fund an additional school resource officer position. There is just one school resource officer in the district, stationed at Berkeley High on weekdays.

Berkeley Technology Academy Principal Sheila Quintana has lobbied in recent years for an officer who could also be present on her campus, the district’s lone continuation school. The grant would have helped provide funding for that position, said Capt. Dave Frankel of the Berkeley Police Department. 

The main function of the school resource officer, Frankel said, is to build relationships with students, answering questions about police, helping talk through incidents that may have upset them and working with kids to keep them out of trouble.

“We don’t want them to be involved in the disciplinary process, that’s not what we want,” Frankel said. But he also acknowledged that, when violent situations do arise, it is helpful to have someone on campus who is familiar with the personalities and nuances.

“When crimes are reported on campus, that’s the primary report taker,” he said, “who also does what is possible to try to handle things at the lowest level and try to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system, using diversion programs, and working with parents and kids and their teachers.”

Relying on other patrol officers to handle school-related calls may not be as effective as having officers who are assigned to schools, Frankel said.

“They don’t have the same level of expertise — working with kids, knowing who’s who on campus, and having relationships with teachers to try to tailor the police response to the child’s needs — because they don’t know the background and the family history,” he said.

He also noted that the department works hard to choose school resource officers with the right skill set for the job. The current officer has a background in child development and juvenile probation. He’s a coach who’s married to a teacher.

(The Berkeley Unified School District denied a prior request from Berkeleyside, in 2014, to shadow the school resource officer to see how the job works.)

In the past, Berkeley had as many as four school resource officers but now has just one, who is stationed at Berkeley High. Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said last year that, on average, 3%-4% of a department is assigned to the schools. If Berkeley followed suit, that would be as many as seven officers.

Even with the grant, the endeavor would not have been cheap. Frankel said the city and school district would have needed to allocate an estimated $75,000 each over the three years to cover the full cost of the position, and that the grant would also have required full local funding for a fourth year.

Currently, the city covers the school resource officer cost for four days (Monday through Thursday), while the district picks up the fifth day and overtime for special events.

The BUSD School Board in December 2015. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD
The BUSD School Board in December 2015. Photo: Mark Coplan/BUSD

School Board members said at their Jan. 13 meeting that, for the most part, it really wasn’t about the money.

“I will never support having more police on our campus,” said Judy Appel. She added that she felt compelled to “warn” fellow board members about the grant, and believes the police department will try to “dress it up” like a restorative justice solution. “I will never vote to have another police officer on our high school. I’m just not going to do it.”

Added Board Member Ty Alper about the grant: “I think we can take those off the table almost permanently.… No more police officers in our schools even if it was not a resource issue.”

Among the other ideas suggested by Evans, which board members expressed support for: improving communication about threats to campus safety; the possibility of a policy to address hate crimes and racial harassment; the development of an anonymous reporting system; establishing a policy for police interactions with students; and providing additional training for the existing school resource officer focused on “expectations roles and responsibilities.”

The district also plans to continue developing its restorative justice program, with an update coming later this semester. Last year, the district hired a restorative justice coordinator for BHS, and has convened a committee to determine “what some of those practices should be at the high school,” Evans told the board.

Appel thanked district staff and others who have been working on coming up with a response to last year’s troubling incidents at Berkeley High. She said she looks forward to “continuing the courageous converations that we have begun,” adding “we’re all so messed up about race.”

Students told the board they did not feel the district’s response was specific enough to Berkeley High, and to demands they presented in December about changes they feel should be made.

“The way the response made us feel was very small,” said Nebeyat Zekaryas, co-president of the BHS Black Student Union. The students did not address the police issue, but asked for changes to the curriculum and for the creation of a Black Resource Center where students can feel comfortable.

Sam Frankel, a representative from the Berkeley NAACP also said the district needs to do more to address racially charged incidents on campus.

“Until the black community hears why you didn’t address this seriously last year…. there’s going to continue to be very serious concern,” he said. “There’s a track record that needs to be addressed.”

Laura Babbit, speaking on behalf of community group Parents of Children of African Descent, said some of the accountability measures proposed by Evans would be a significant improvement on the status quo.

“You’ve taken a stand — we appreciate all the stands,” she told the board. “But this is time to deliver.”

The district plans to report back to the board in February with an update on the Evans proposals.

Board President Beatriz Leyva-Cutler said by email after the vote that “The board was very clear that with regards to immediate action we would rather our district put resources to training, and programs that are prevention and intervention; and build relationships between students and adults rather than additional police/policing on campus. Programs like high school counselors, a robust Restorative Justice, training for teachers and programs like Peacekeepers and adults that care and engage our students. We would rather that our students learn to be allies and our schools utilize restorative practices.”

Police Capt. Frankel said, after the Jan. 13 vote, that BPD had been in talks with the school district prior to seeking the grant, and that the superintendent had been in favor of the proposal. Frankel said the Police Department is still hoping to find a way to partner with the district to take advantage of the grant.

Superintendent Evans did not respond to an interview request from Berkeleyside.

Tonight’s board meeting

At the Jan. 27 School Board meeting, there are two reports on Measure A revenue and spending on the action calendar, followed by some discussion of the governor’s budget for 2016-17. There’s an information item featuring data related to diversity and how the district assigns students to elementary schools (Item 14.2).

The consent calendar includes several updates about construction projects. The district has asked for board approval to add $111,000 to the budget for the Longfellow Cafe Project, which was approved at $375,000. The cafe is across from the main Longfellow Middle School campus on Ward Street, and the district may need to add traffic safety features to the project, in addition to other changes. See Item 11.6 for more information.

The district is also asking to bump up the John Muir modernization project by $83,000, from an original amount of $180,000. The money is set to come out of Measure I. See Item 11.7 for details.

The district has completed installation of cameras at Berkeley High, Washington and Emerson, and new public address systems at Washington, Emerson, Thousand Oaks and Rosa Parks. Tonight’s consent calendar item would officially complete the project, which was paid for through Measure AA. See Item 11.10 for more info.

Meeting details

The Berkeley Unified School District Board of Education generally meets twice monthly on Wednesdays at 2020 Bonar St. The entrance to the board chambers is around the corner on Addison Street. There is a large parking lot around the corner from Addison Street, on Browning Street.

The regular meeting is set to begin by 7:30 p.m. Public comment is limited to 30 minutes, with a 3-minute limit per speaker. Public comment takes place at the beginning and end of the meeting, rather than in response to each item.

Meetings are televised live on Berkeley Community Media channel 33, and rebroadcast the following Thursday at 9 a.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Meetings are also recorded for radio and played after the meeting on KPFB 89.3 FM. They are also streamed live, and posted online after the meeting. Other BUSD-related videos are posted online at Vimeo.

Read more Berkeleyside coverage related to Berkeley schools. See the full agenda packet, and the Berkeley School Board website

Campus racism, Thousand Oaks portables, help for ‘high-need’ students (01.13.16)
School Board gets annual bullying report (12.09.15)
School Board primer: Impact fees, class sizes, intervention efforts and the achievement gap (10.28.15)
School Board primer: Restorative justice for BHS, BSEP tax, LCAP goals, council move (09.30.15)
Berkeley Technology Academy starts semester with record low enrollment (09.24.15)
School Board Primer: Projects over budget at King and Willard, district priorities, finances (09.09.15)
School Board primer: B-Tech review, council asks to move to Bonar, more (08.28.15)

Do you rely on Berkeleyside for local news? Support independent journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside member for $10 a month or even less, or by making a one-time donation.

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...