Berkeley High School, March 2018. Photo: Nancy Rubin
At Berkeley High School, a longtime teacher is on leave after showing his students how to use a historic bazooka. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Update, April 24, 10:30 a.m. Nearly two weeks after he showed students a historic weapon and was placed on leave, Berkeley High history teacher Alex Angell has come back to work, said an administrator in an email to parents Tuesday morning.

“Mr. Angell returns to school today to resume his normal teaching schedule,” said the email from Vice Principal Felicia Phillips.

Original story, April 18: A popular Berkeley High School history teacher who showed his students a historic bazooka has been placed on administrative leave.

A video taken by a student shows teacher Alex Angell in his classroom, holding the reportedly decommissioned rocket launcher over his shoulder and describing how it is used. The video was taken April 10, according to students, and was posted on social media for some time, then removed. It was shared with Berkeleyside, but the student who took it asked that it not be published.

Students in Angell’s classes say they have been taught by a substitute teacher since the day after the incident.

Berkeley High Vice Principal Felicia Phillips wrote an email to parents of Angell’s students on April 15, informing them that the teacher is “on an approved leave of absence and will not be on campus until further notice.” She assured them the classes will be covered by a substitute, and that grades will not be affected while Angell is out.

“I cannot share any other details at this time, as leave information is confidential,” she wrote.

The school district also declined to elaborate on the reasons Angell has been out of the classroom.

“He was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into the incident and issues surrounding it,” wrote BUSD spokesman Charles Burress in an email. “Because it is a personnel matter, we cannot comment further on the reasons for the leave or its conditions.”

It is unclear how the incident came to the attention of the Berkeley High leadership or school district. Berkeley High Principal Erin Schweng directed Berkeleyside’s inquiries to the district spokesman.

Asked whether bringing a decommissioned weapon to school violates either Berkeley Unified or California education policy, Burress wrote: “Because we have not completed our investigation, we have not reached a conclusion about whether any policies have been violated in this case.”

Angell, who has taught at Berkeley High for over a decade, did not respond to requests for an interview.

Some parents and students told Berkeleyside they are dismayed that the teacher is on leave during an important time of the school year.

“With AP exams coming up, I won’t be prepared without Mr. Angell,” said one junior in his class, who asked not to be named.

“He is one of the most engaging teachers at Berkeley High. As I was talking to a bunch of people today, we all thought it was strange that Mr. Angell was suspended for having a weapon in class, but it’s only a historical artifact, and in no way could it work. He also has a backpack from WWII and a medieval shield and likes to collect that kind of stuff,” the student wrote in a text message. (Angell was not suspended, but rather placed on leave while the investigation proceeds.)

Another student reportedly created an Instagram account called “Save Mr. Angell,” which has since been disabled.

A senior who took Angell’s class last year said this is not the first time the bazooka has made an appearance on campus.

“He had it in the classroom as a decoration but it was never threatening or anything,” she wrote in a text message.

However, the district is figuring out its response to the recent incident during a period of heightened sensitivity around weapons in schools. In March, in the aftermath of the shooting that killed 17 at a high school in Parkland, Florida, hundreds of Berkeley High students walked out of class, joining their peers around the country in decrying gun violence. During the demonstration, several said they have sat in class scared, thinking about where they would hide in the case of an active shooter on campus.

The tragedy prompted national debate, as well as a suggestion by President Donald Trump that teachers should be armed, which inspired incredulity and anger among many working in education.

This Friday, local students and others are planning to participate in the “National Day of Action Against Gun Violence in School.”

“Berkeley High is planning on having presentations in the morning focused on the 10 different bills that are trying to be passed in California, along with other legislation regarding common sense gun reform,” wrote Kira Galbraith, one of the students organizing the event, in an email to Berkeleyside.

Disclosure: The reporter who wrote this article is a former student of Alex Angell’s. 

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...