Editor’s note: This story was updated on Friday, June 3, to note that the 16-year-old boy arrested on suspicion of planning a mass shooting and bombing at Berkeley High has been charged with three felonies. He’s been charged with solicitation of murder, making criminal threats and possessing materials for the purpose of making a destructive device, according to the East Bay Times.
Berkeley was shaken this week by news that a 16-year-old boy had been arrested on suspicion of planning a mass shooting and bombing at Berkeley High School and recruiting other students to join him.
With the community on high alert after recent mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, some parents and teachers said they felt unsafe with school being open the following day. Many community members also called for increased security at Saturday’s high school graduation, even as officials have offered reassurances that there is no continuing threat.
In an announcement Wednesday, police said they had seized “parts to explosives and assault rifles, several knives, and electronic items that could be used to create additional weapons” from the student’s Berkeley home May 22. Eight days later, the student turned himself in, following what BPD called an “arrangement” his attorney had made with police.
In the wake of Wednesday’s announcement, many people asked for additional details about the police investigation. Some addressed the Berkeley School Board during its meeting Wednesday night, and others posted inquiries to Berkeleyside on social media and in the comments section.
On Thursday, officials were able to answer some questions. The answers to others remain unknown.
Police believe the teen was planning the attack for “sometime next year,” though they worried the recent mass shootings could spur him to act sooner.
Police have not yet shared specifics regarding what type of weapon parts the student is alleged to have acquired, citing the ongoing investigation. But a department spokesperson told Berkeleyside the teenager had acquired them legally and did not have all the parts needed to operate the rifles and explosives.
“Nothing was assembled,” said Officer Jessica Perry. “It was just pieces.”
According to Perry, the student had also tried to buy a gun at school and had been searching the dark web, a part of the internet that cannot be accessed via search engines and where it can be difficult to track a person’s browsing history.
BPD declined to answer questions about whether the items officers seized had been purchased online, how the teen had allegedly obtained them and where the teen was from the time his home was searched until his arrest.
9 days from tip to arrest
The police investigation began May 21, when someone called BPD with an alarming tip: A Berkeley High student was recruiting other students to participate in a school shooting involving explosives. Officers immediately began trying to determine whether the information was credible.
The next day, police searched the boy’s home and seized the weapon parts. During the operation, police had Berkeley’s Mobile Crisis Team evaluate the teen.
Police: The timeline
May 21 — BPD gets tip via phone
May 22 — Student’s house searched, weapon parts seized by patrol officers
May 23 — BPD’s Youth Services Unit begins investigation
May 26 — BPD secures arrest warrant, student isn’t home
May 30 — Student turns himself in
But he was not arrested until Monday, when he turned himself in. Following Wednesday’s announcement, many people have clamored to understand the delay.
Police told Berkeleyside on Thursday that at the time of the May 22 search they did not have enough information to make an arrest.
After the search, which was conducted by patrol team officers over the weekend, investigators with the Youth Services Unit picked up the case. (Investigators at BPD typically are not on duty over the weekend.)
On May 23, Youth Services detectives began speaking to witnesses, reviewing evidence and conferring with other law enforcement agencies, including the California Highway Patrol.
During that time, police, the Berkeley Unified School District, the family of the teen and his attorney worked together to ensure that the student would be supervised and that he would not go to the school in the days that followed, according to BPD.
“There’s this impression that we left the student out there to do whatever he wanted,” said Officer Byron White, BPD spokesperson. “That’s not the case.”
On Thursday, May 26, investigators secured a warrant from an Alameda County judge to arrest the teen.
Police went to the student’s home that day to arrest him, but he wasn’t there, Perry said. Detectives were able to make contact with the boy’s attorney to ensure there was a plan for his arrest, Perry said.
The teen didn’t turn himself in for four days after the warrant had been issued for his arrest.
Both BPD and BUSD have declined to answer questions about where the student was between the time of the May 22 search and the May 30 arrest.
“The family, for the most part, was cooperative,” White said.
Police advised BUSD that the teenager did not pose an ongoing threat because officers had confiscated the dangerous weapon parts. This past week, Berkeley Unified kept schools open, telling only a few administrators about the investigation.
According to BPD, no other students were determined to have posed a threat to campus, and no other arrests have been made in connection with the case.
The teenager was taken to Juvenile Hall in San Leandro, where he remains in custody. He was charged with three felonies during a Thursday afternoon hearing in juvenile court and will next appear in court on Monday, according to Assistant District Attorney Matthew Golde. The East Bay Times reported that the teen was charged with solicitation of murder, making criminal threats and possessing materials for the purpose of making a destructive device.
The school district has said it is conducting its own investigation into the situation to determine whether there should be disciplinary action.
How BUSD prepares for active intruders
Superintendent Brent Stephens said the incident was an example of an effective intervention that stopped a potential mass shooting from progressing further.
“Informants came, police took quick action,” Stephens said. “What appears to have been a potential plan to inflict harm here on the campus has been averted.”
Still, in the wake of another national reckoning over mass shootings, Berkeley Unified has faced heightened scrutiny of its emergency preparedness. This threat — in addition to an incident on Friday when a 17-year-old boy was shot in the arm at Civic Center Park, just outside of the high school, and a campus-wide lockdown at UC Berkeley in April after a student threatened to shoot staff members — only added to the community’s concern.
Stephens sent a letter to the community Thursday detailing the safety measures it will take for this weekend’s graduation, as well as some of the school district’s plans in case of an active shooter emergency.
There will be 12 police officers and other BHS security officers at the graduation ceremony, he said, the same police presence that’s been planned for months.
In general, the district said it conducts active intruder drills and uses ALICE protocols to prepare students and staff for moments of crisis.
During a Nov. 3 active intruder drill that Stephens details in the letter, students and staff watched a video of what to do in case of a shooting and then practiced locking the classroom door, creating a barricade, covering the windows, and hiding away from windows and doors.
In 2018, after a shooting left 17 dead at a high school in Parkland, Florida, Berkeley Unified began installing Columbine locks, which can secure doors from the inside, in all classrooms.
BUSD also initiated a host of other school safety upgrades, including making school perimeters more secure, adding alarm and public address systems and installing security cameras, security lighting and window coverings. Stephens said these upgrades have been completed.
School security upgrades can help keep students safe in the event of an emergency, but the most important thing a school district can do to prevent mass shootings is develop a threat assessment system, according to 2020 and 2018 reports by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. The system is geared toward identifying warning signs of violent behavior and intervening early, before an individual gets their hands on a weapon.
To be effective, schools need systematic ways of finding and collecting information about threats of violence, according to a report by the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. This can include an anonymous tip line or social media monitoring software, and students should be trained to look out for and report warning signs.
A risk assessment team should be able to determine if a student has access to guns. Counselors also play a key role, providing information — they may be the first to see warning signs — and intervention.
At Berkeley High, there is a crisis response team and a safety multi-disciplinary team made up of police officers, counselors and school leaders that would kick into action in the case of a crisis.
The team’s responsibilities are outlined in the school’s 2021-22 Safety Plan and include a plan for caring for students after an emergency. There’s no section in the plan on identifying the warning signs of violence and intervening.
Stephens said it was “standard practice” for school psychologists to perform risk assessments for students and that the district can compel students who exhibit warning signs to participate in one.
A form where students can report intimidation, threats and violence anonymously is available on the Berkeley High website.
Since January, BUSD has been working with Rockeye Consulting — a firm that offers a range of services from COVID testing to emergency response training — to identify safety vulnerabilities on campus and update its safety plans. The firm will also conduct emergency response training for staff.
During a budget discussion Wednesday night, Stephens also recommended that the district hire a full-time safety coordinator next school year.
Berkeleyside also reviewed BPD’s policy for active shooters and interviewed Officer Brian Hartley, the force’s firearms instructor, about BPD’s protocols in the case of an active shooter.
If someone is harming others, according to BPD policy, the first officers at the scene “shall take immediate action, if reasonably possible, while requesting additional assistance.” Officers are urged to use their judgment if there is imminent danger but no physical violence to decide whether to intervene immediately or wait for other officers to arrive.
Other officers would include the BPD’s Special Response Team — their version of a SWAT team.
In the case of an active shooter, Hartley said police would only wait for other officers “if this individual has maybe barricaded the doors with something that would require special tools to open, or something unusual like that.” In other words, only in rare cases would BPD officers not try to stop an active shooter immediately.
Hartley said it had been four years since police received specific active shooter training or conducted drills in the community, though he said many of the skills they do train for transfer to emergency situations like these.
Emilie Raguso, senior editor of news, contributed to this report.