From dance competitions to drunk kids: A history of Rally Day at Berkeley High

The day meant to celebrate school spirit at Berkeley High was not always full of the bottle-throwing and partying for which it’s now known.

Rally Day in 2012. Spirit week was canceled at Berkeley High the following year, with the district citing concerns about rampant alcohol abuse and accompanying hazing and bullying. File photo: BUSD/Mark Coplan

Editor’s note: This story, written by Berkeley High juniors Erin Bartholomew and Tobi Haims, was originally published in the Berkeley High Jacket, the school’s student newspaper. Bartholomew and Haims write for the paper’s investigative section.

Rally Day at Berkeley High School has been going on for longer than almost anyone can remember. Also known as Red & Gold day, it’s the last day of spirit week, the day when students celebrate by dressing up in the school colors.

However, the day has become synonymous with mayhem and violence. Harmful traditions of egging freshmen, destroying property, chanting, fighting, and large amounts of students being intoxicated on campus are all justified by many as a celebration of school spirit. Principal Juan Raygoza informed the community this fall that the school was not sanctioning Rally Day due to safety concerns. 

But Rally Day was not always full of the bottle-throwing and partying for which it’s now known.

Benette Williams, a Berkeley High French and Spanish teacher, attended the school as a student from 1957 to 1960. At the time, there was no Rally Day; students channeled their energy into the homecoming football game and school dance.

When Williams became a teacher, a friendly competition between graduating classes was introduced. Each class was judged by a group of teachers on a variety of categories, such as class behavior and costumes. Classes also earned points when they participated in service and community activities.

“We were trying to manage just hundreds of drunk kids.” — Amy Frey, former vice principal, Berkeley High

“We were painting the blocks in the courtyard, we were planting trees, we were weeding. Each class would take a day of that week to clean up the campus,” said former Vice Principal Amy Frey, who also graduated from Berkeley High in 1984.

At the end of spirit week, whichever grade had the most points would get their graduation year engraved on a trophy known as the Spirit Cup, which was kept in the Donahue Gym. “It made spirit week inclusive and not just [centered] around partying,” Frey said. “Having activities during that week really helped channel the energy for students.”

However, this wholesomeness later soured. “If the seniors didn’t come out on top, they were just so angry, so furious, because they felt so entitled,” Williams said. “It wasn’t Berkeley High anymore; it was seniors against juniors, and it was bred from being left out or being taunted.”

Frey also noticed this shift when she began working at the school in 2005. Spirit week had changed significantly from when she was a student, morphing from a week of service into a week of partying.

“We were trying to manage just hundreds of drunk kids,” said Frey. During Frey’s six years at Berkeley High, she said administrators worked hard to change the culture of Rally Day, to make it safe and enjoyable for everyone. They provided music and food, conducted bag checks, and allowed students to remain on campus. “Yes, it was a ton of work. Yes, it was exhausting. Yes, my feet hurt,” Frey said. “But it was fun.”

In the past, Rally Days ended with students gathered together, sectioned by their graduating year. During the spirit rally, students would yell, “‘We’ve got spirit, yes we do! We’ve got spirit, how about you?’ and then you would point to the other section and they would scream,” Frey recalled. From dance competitions to performing skits, the rally remained significant for the school.

“When I took over the position [as activities director] in 2012, it made no sense, but we [held the rally] out on the football field,” said John Villavicencio, who still holds the same job at the school. Freshmen and sophomores stood on the field behind small barricades.

About halfway through the rally, the sophomore class started to rush the field. “I was in the press box, just watching 800 people run across the field,” Villavicencio remembered. “They just started running around in circles because there was nowhere else to go. … It was mayhem.”

The 2012 rally caused issues and safety concerns, and spirit week was completely canceled the following year. Students were not even allowed to do dress up days. “It was a lot of ‘no’s,’” Villavicencio said. It was not until 2015 that Villavicencio was able to convince administration to hold the rally again, this time in Berkeley High’s Community Theater.

Erin Schweng started working at Berkeley High as a vice principal in 2014. During Rally Day that fall, she and another previous vice principal were “standing next to each other in between the juniors and the seniors,” Schweng recounted. The energy got “more and more intense” as students started throwing sticks from signs as well as plastic and glass bottles.

Suddenly, the vice principal next to Schweng got hit in the head with a glass bottle from the crowd, and 911 ended up being called for his serious head injury. With a sigh, she said, “That was my first Rally Day.”

While it hasn’t always been the case, many students have come to school intoxicated on past Rally Days. One year, Schweng’s Fitbit told her that she walked eight miles around campus while she was on the lookout for noticeably intoxicated students. She remembered finding kids who were so under the influence of “definitely alcohol, likely more, that they were unable to function. … Sometimes we would have to call the ambulance for those kids, because they were actually, really in a scary way, unable to respond.” Frey also recalled that during her first year as an administrator, there were “over 40 or 50 students being called for drug and alcohol issues.”

Dana Moran, a Universal Ninth Grade history teacher, said that now there’s an “anonymous mob mentality.” When there’s a large crowd of students dressed in red and gold, there’s no accountability and “students feel that they can do anything that they want.”

With spirit week postponed this year, the Berkeley High community remains divided on the issue.

Moran is unsure whether canceling Rally Day has had a positive outcome. Regardless, she said that the legal liability and risk of harm are all so high that the administration is left with no other option than to cancel Rally Day. Planning spirit week has also proved incredibly taxing on administrators, custodians, safety officers and teachers.

Speaking from experience, Schweng said, “I cannot imagine being responsible for the safety of all those students, and not taking some kind of strong stand against the violence that happens that day.”

On the other hand, Frey believes that “It’s problematic when administration cancels [Rally Day] because it will happen anyway. It’s better to be prepared for it and have your parent volunteers, safety officers, teachers, and everybody aligned on how you’re going to do it.” Frey empathized with students who just want to have an exciting, high-energy week and express their school spirit.

“I get it from both perspectives,” Frey said. “They just need to work together to make it fun.”