A Berkeley police cruiser at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley on Thursday. Photo: Lance Knobel

Police are searching for a man who reportedly brought a gun to Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in North Berkeley on Thursday afternoon, authorities say.

Police responded quickly to the campus, at 1781 Rose St. (at Grant Street), to investigate the report. Administrators told police, as of just after 3:30 p.m., that the man with the gun had left campus on foot. A woman who drove by the school as police were responding to the call told Berkeleyside “it looks like half the Berkeley Police Department is parked outside.”

One King staffer told Berkeleyside that Thursday’s incident began with a fight at lunch between two sixth grade boys. One of those boys left school and returned later with family members to find the other student, the staffer said. One of the family members had a gun in his waistband, students reported. When the family group found the boy from the fight, they chased him. He took refuge in the school game room along with some students who had tried to intervene, the staffer said.

Berkeley Police spokesman Officer Byron White said BPD responded to campus at 3:20 p.m. for “a report that there was possibly a man on King Middle School grounds that was armed with a handgun. Officers responded to King Middle school, searched the school grounds and confirmed that the suspect has left school grounds. Officers are now searching the area for the suspect.”

At one point, just before 3:30 p.m., police dispatchers said they were on the phone with a 13-year-old student who was locked in the school game room with about 15 other people, according to radio traffic reviewed by Berkeleyside. One King parent told Berkeleyside his daughter texted him at 3:34 p.m. and said campus was “in a lockdown.”

Classes let out for the day at 3:05 p.m., but many students remain on campus in the after-school program until 6 p.m.

One community member told Berkeleyside at about 3:45 p.m. that “they are letting students back on campus at King after police entered campus a short while ago with guns drawn.”

As of about 3:50 p.m., campus life appeared to have returned to normal. Students were playing frisbee and chatting on the lawn. There were also students playing foosball in the game room that reportedly had been locked down earlier as police responded to the scene.

One eighth grader told Berkeleyside he had been in the game room when “a girl came in. She was crying and shaking. We locked the door. Everyone started yelling. There were a lot of kids running in. Teachers told everyone to go to the nearest classrooms.” The 14-year-old said he had done “a lot” of lockdown drills while at King, learning safety tactics such as pushing desks up against doors and windows and hiding in the corner.

Patricia Rathwell, who’s taught at King for 20 years, told Berkeleyside she had locked her classroom during the response as per police instructions. Rathwell said the King community had begun lockdown drills within the past couple of years, noting: “We practice lockdowns now.”

The King staffer who described the lunchtime fight to Berkeleyside said the campus has lockdown drills every few months. Two years ago, staff also took part in a type of training called “ALICE” where they learned about suggested tactics for responding to an active shooter, such as making loud noises and throwing things at the assailant.

“It’s definitely scary, the climate we live in,” the staffer said. “There are lots of times we think, huh, could someone come up here with a gun?”

But the staffer said Thursday’s events seemed isolated to a small group of students, which will ensure administrators can respond appropriately and keep an eye on anyone who is involved.

A number of people told Berkeleyside they were already on high alert after a school shooting in Colorado on Tuesday, which left one student dead and eight wounded. No one was harmed during the incident Thursday at King, police said.

Berkeleyside has also asked the Berkeley Unified School District for comment. This story will be updated when it is provided.

Update, 4:46 p.m. King Principal Janet Levenson sent an email to parents at about 4:40 p.m. titled, “Today’s incident after school.”

“King Families,” she wrote, “Today at dismissal time there was a large police presence at the school. Two relatives of a student came onto campus and another student reported that she thought one of them had a gun. I am grateful to the Berkeley Police Department for taking these threats so seriously and responding so quickly. They determined there was no safety threat at that time. The afterschool went into lockdown for a brief period. The situation resolved very quickly. I am working with the police to figure out exactly what happened and to follow up with all involved. Please reassure your students that it is safe to come to school tomorrow. I will update you with any new information.”

Update, 5 p.m. BPD also released a statement about Thursday’s response. It appears below in full.

Berkeley Police quickly responded earlier today to a report of a man armed with a handgun at King Middle School at 3:20pm, shortly after school was let out. While officers, including all on-duty members of the Special Response team, confirmed that the suspect had already left school grounds, several officers remained at the North Berkeley scene to secure the area. Others are now coordinating with outside agencies to look for the suspect.

Berkeley Police are interviewing witnesses and working with Berkeley Unified School District to gather more information about the suspect, who appears to be a parent or caregiver of a student. Witnesses described the suspect as a 20- to 30-year-old black male, 5’7” tall, with a medium build and long “twisty” braids. He was reportedly wearing a white hooded top, and blue jeans.

We are encouraging students, families or others who might have other information to please contact the Berkeley Police Department at (510) 981-5900.

We don’t expect any further updates today.

Update, 5:45 p.m. BUSD spokesman Charles Burress said the district is continuing its own investigation and cooperating with police. He said BUSD is “not confident of any further facts” it could share at this time.

This story was updated regularly due to the developing nature of events. Berkeleyside’s Natalie Orenstein and Lance Knobel reported from the scene.

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...