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The PTSA urges you to express your support for Berkeley High’s Safety Officers, Academic Counselors, and Dean of Attendance by writing (link above) and coming to the School Board meeting on February 21st, from 7:15-8:15, 1231 Addison Street (park in lot on Browning, fill out speaker card by 7:15.

Scroll down to read PTSA Interviews with Safety Officers Walter Mitchell, Steve Saunders, and Eric Riley, Academic Counselor Teri Goodman, and Dean of Attendance Allen Boltz.    

PTSA Interview with 3 BHS Safety Officers

The intent of these PTSA interviews is to inform the BHS community about the many roles that safety officers perform on campus because the proposed Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) budget for 2018-19 will cut 4 of BHS’s 15 Safety Officers.

Interview #1 with Walter Mitchell

How long have you been a Safety Officer at BHS? I’ve been here 18 years. I’m also the Vice President of Security and Operations for the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees.

Why did BHS add 4 Safety Officers? When Pasquale Scuderi was principal, there were issues with firearms on campus and unrest off campus. A consultant was brought in to assess safety; the entrances and gates provided easy. With the additional staff we’ve had more coverages and protected entrances. We’ve been down 1 safety officer for 2 years, which means that if 4 more are cut we’ll be down 5 from what is optimal.

Do Safety Officers have special training? We’re all trained in de-escalation, disaster handling, and search and seizure for situations such as fights, drills, actual shooters, and first aid. The safety officers are on top of any incident on campus. We can secure the situation, handle the problem, and notify the chain of command. We make sure that all involved are safe. When a fire alarm goes off, we make sure everyone goes where they're supposed to go and that the rest of the staff understands the importance of following the written Safety Guidelines on clipboards in all campus buildings.

How is your relationship with the Berkeley Police? We have a good relationship with them. A police officer conducted our last training, and there have been suggestions that we get more training from them.

Where are safety officers distributed? There’s an officer at the A gate and 2 on the perimeters, 1 in the courtyard, 2 in locker rooms and athletic fields, and officers in the G, H, C and M buildings. The officers are always on the move, checking bathrooms, and stairwells, and they’re available to back each other up in there’s a need for assistance. Being down one officer means we don’t have anyone to secure the cafeteria door, and that’s a problem.

How is this a problem? Students can leave the campus. BHS has an attendance issue with students who prefer to be outside of the classroom. Safety officers have a good relationship with these students, we try to engage and reach out to them. We focus on getting them back to their classes, but we can’t impose any consequences. We don’t have the power to change their behavior beyond redirecting and de-escalating. We’re most effective at de-escalating before disaster strikes.

Is there anything safety officers can do to prevent sexual harassment? Young men and ladies play, they may grab each other or pull each other’s clothes. We try to explain to them the potential harm that can come out of this. When I started working here, lingerie wasn’t considered a blouse and young men always wore shirts, but there’s no dress code at Berkeley High. A male safety officer comment to a female student could be taken the wrong way, so it’s better to look away and only make eye contact and involve a female administrator if there’s any sense of potential harm, such as an adult on the outside.

What are the safety challenges at BHS? There’s so much going on, there many are opportunities for things to happen. Overall, it’s good with the safety officer numbers we have, each person has an assignment. If you cut 4 positions, you leave a huge gap. What does district plan to fill it with? When things happen, who are students and other officers going to turn to?

Interview #2 with Steve Saunders

When did you start working at BHS and what were the challenges then? I started in 2005. There were a couple of bad years. There was a huge fight, and there were Spirit Week blow-ups on campus. There was an incident with a firearm and one where an adult chased a kid onto campus and needed to be controlled. We needed people at the doors.

What’s been the impact of having 4 additional Safety Officers?  It wound up being an amazing thing. We have people at stations who can say “this is what I see, there’s an erratic person coming towards campus”, so we get advance notice. It made a big difference, our being able to come out and face the threat enabled us to take protective measures. We have children here, they’re precious, we need to keep them safe.

What is the safety officer’s role in the BHS community? We play many roles. We are safety officers, uncles, mentors, counselors. Kids come to us before they go to their parents, peers, and real counselors. That’s why I’m here, I get to help these kids. I talk to kids like I’m their uncle; they see ‘this guy is talking to me like I’m one of the family.’ They respect me much more because I talk to them straight. I get results. Seeing kids walk across the stage when they graduate, kids coming back and telling me I’ve helped them, this is why I’m here, it’s not about a paycheck, it’s about love.

What about the kids who aren’t motivated? BHS can be an overwhelming place. There’s too much opportunity for other kids to get in their ear. Some kids are not built for this kind of space, they need a smaller place but they’re here. I’m at my lowest points of frustration when I see some of these kids walking around. Why is this happening in Berkeley? Is it because we allow our children more independence? Does it have to do with what goes on at home? We have to have parents participate in their kid’s education and sometimes the staff, myself included, is not consistent. Kids won’t follow the rules if the rules aren’t consistent. As long as kids feel that they don’t have to do anything, they’ll never succeed without a strong platform beneath them. It frustrates me to no end that we haven’t found a solution for a small group of kids that create 90% of the problems.

Has social media increased safety challenges? Definitely. Chaos that begins on a Saturday leads to kids coming to school on Monday to do something about it. Almost half of the fights we break up start on weekends. When there is going to be a fight, kids contact each other on social media. A much larger audience is told what’s going down and where.

Tell me about Spirit Week? I went to BHS, we had Spirit Week, it was the greatest thing ever, and when it was over it would just end; it was a normal thing, kids weren’t riled up. But that was then. Now I think that as long as we have all the kids in one place at the end of school, there’s going to be a problem because the kids are all fired up. You can’t stop Spirit Week, even if it’s cancelled, the kids will make it happen on their own.

Why do you think kids are fired up? I’m not sure what it stems from, but today there’s all this energy, kids want to destroy things. I really don’t have the answer, but I think some kids want the attention; they want other kids to see them. I believe it’s a generational thing and it goes back to social media. It’s a completely different thing now, a student can text 400 kids and say he’s going to do a crazy thing, and if someone posts a video of him in the act it can get thousands of views. It’s all about wanting the most attention, they want as many views as possible. This is just scratching the surface of what could be a really deep conversation

What do you want parents to know about safety officers? We take it home; we worry about these kids; we ask ourselves ‘what can we do?’ I want to help a child who has come to me and said “I don’t trust anyone except for you Steve.” I’ll give that kid my all. Kids come up to me and say my friend told me you can help me with my problem. Kids know they can always come to me. A lot of these kids call me Uncle Steve, and they’re not just Black; they’re White, Asian, Hispanic, all colors and cultures. They’ll introduce me to their parents as “Uncle Steve.”

Interview #3 with Eric Riley

How would you describe the BHS safety officer role? I started in 2004, and our role has always been more than just being about safety. Kids can fall through the cracks because the school is so big. We safety officers do a lot of counseling in the process of conflict mediation. We know a lot about kids that their parents don’t know because we’re on the front lines; we know it first. I’m involved in a mentoring program here to show a group of kids that people are behind them.

How has keeping BHS safe become more challenging?  The campus has expanded, the M building has added 3 extra floors, and there’s the new stadium and field, and kids do go there. So, there’s more land to cover, but the kids have changed as well. Everybody has phones. The climate of the world is changing, and kids have become more vocal about issues like sexual harassment and racist incidents and politics. With Trump, we’ve seen debates among students, some kids have advocated for Trump or building a wall. All in all, there’s more tension.

Can you describe how staffing levels impact safety? We had 12 safety officer positions; one who left has never been replaced. We always had issues with the doors until we added 4 safety monitors to watch the doors. At some point these positions were reclassified as safety officers. We’re at 15 now, and if there are only 11, everybody will be in different buildings. If I am the only person in the G & H building, there will not be anyone close by to respond to a fight, we’ll be running distances that are crazy. There was a time when I had to rely on teachers to help me break up a fight, and teachers used to get hurt. At our current staffing level, we have 4 officers in highly populated areas; losing them will create a lot of strain. Plus, a lot more is going to happen without more eyes, for example, there will be more marijuana use on campus.

Is pot a problem on campus? We’ve caught lots of kids distributing pot from their lockers, and when we catch them we call an administrator and give the kids a chance to give up what they have before we search their backpack and locker. Then we write a report and pass them on to authorities. The new law will definitely make pot more available. As it is some kids have cannabis cards. Kids smoke on campus in hidden spots, the A building used to be notorious until we got a safety officer monitoring the A gate.

How has social media changed what you do? It’s had a huge impact. For example, I had a case where something came up between 2 girls, threats were made on social media, and a group of kids used social media to organize to gang up on one of the girls. We got there first and got the girls to the office, and the whole time one girl’s phone was constantly lighting up with snaps from kids letting each other know where they were, like “I’m at this door if she comes this way.” Social media lets kids get more creative and do stuff under the radar, but if we have good relationships with kids they will let us know. They show us snaps and videos and let us know what’s going on. Kids usually come to us when they’re upset about a situation.

Tell me more about kids coming to you? I look at all of them as if this kid could be my child. If you come at them as an authority figure, they’re not going to listen. I give them respect so I’ll get their respect and they’ll listen to me. I’m the guy they can relate to in between classes. They’ll talk to me about their issues and teachers. I try to mend bridges so they can succeed. I can stop a lot of fights before they happen. I can bring kids into the same room to work it out. They need that extra support.

What’s most satisfying about your job? The other day after an incident I sat with a girl and her mother and helped them come to agreement. This lessened the high tension that had been in the room; everybody was calm and cool at the end of the day. Later the student thanked me for my insight. Helping kids get over what they see as a huge obstacle increases my self awareness and confidence in my ability to help them.