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Crosscurrents logo 2021

Berkeley School District protects students against threat of violence

Every time news of another school shooting hits the headlines, so does the debate about how to keep children safe. After the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, the Berkeley Unified School District asked itself: “How prepared are we to protect our students and staff against someone with a gun?” 

And, then, because this is Berkeley, they also asked, “How do we balance security with privacy and civil rights?”

America’s worst school shootings are so infamous that they’ve become a part of our common vocabulary. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Each name is a catchword for terror, a wound that never heals.

And then there’s Columbine, the name of a lock on all the doors at Realm Charter School in Berkeley. Student and Family Services Administrator,  Nancy Williams, shows us how it works. “Ok, we’re opening the door and I close it, just press the lock in and it’s locked and no one can get in unless they have a key,” she says.

It’s been 15 years since two heavily armed students opened fire at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. California only recently passed a law requiring all newly-constructed public schools to install Columbine locks like the one in Nancy Williams’ office. “It means safety for me. It means that if I’m in the office and someone is outside they can’t get in unless I allow them in,” she says.

But elsewhere in Berkeley, many other schools still don’t have the upgraded security hardware in place. But that will all change soon. The Berkeley Unified School District  (BUSD) recently approved a safety plan that, like the Columbine locks, is a response to recent incidents of school gun violence. Susan Craig, Director of Student Services for the Berkeley Unified School District, was responsible for developing the plan. “I really credit the district and the board for prioritizing school safety and not sticking our heads in the sand and saying it can’t happen here,” she says.

Craig says the memory of the Sandy Hook massacre is still very raw for her, and for the parents she speaks to. “The impetus was the wake-up call of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and the reality that it can happen anywhere. Almost immediately after Sandy Hook we began discussions of, ‘We need to do something.’ We began hearing from parents, ‘We are scared, we want the district to do something, we are scared for our children.’

Craig led a team of safety consultants and the Berkeley Police on a tour of all 21 school sites in the district, and says they found a lot to improve upon. “The auditors recommended basically everything- from updating the public address system, to armed intruder training for all staff, to having armed police officers on the campuses,” she recalls.

Craig’s team rejected some ideas as too extreme for Berkeley, like having police with guns on every campus, but they began armed intruder training this summer where staff learn to stop shooters in their tracks. Craig says such training is a sad sign of the times. “Until Newtown, many people were extremely reluctant to actually train staff in that worst case scenario. Rather than to have everyone huddle together motionless under a table, which makes one the absolute easiest target for an armed intruder, there’s training around how to take actually take the person down.”

The two million dollar plan includes installing Columbine locks in every classroom, and upgrading the loudspeaker systems. The school board also approved camera surveillance in all schools, which prompted the district to adopt a privacy policy specifically addressing the use of cameras in the schools.

Even with all of these upgrades, teachers are still taught the best response to an armed intruder is to go into lockdown.

At Le Conte Elementary, second grade teacher, Pamela Diebel, explains the procedures for the lockdown drill, which happens three times a year. “We turn off the lights so we can be as inconspicuous as possible and the kids all come close to me on the carpet and I just read a story to keep them calm.”

Le Conte Principal Veronica Valerio says the drills are fine, but she’s operating under a lot of handicaps. For one thing, the school’s PA system is so weak that her drill announcement isn't heard through some parts of the school. The classrooms won’t have Columbine locks until next year, and security cameras are still on the way.

All of these measures - lockdowns, cameras, armed intruder training - show that Berkeley has changed along with the rest of America. On the Le Conte Elementary playground, parents react to the new security measures.

“Having armed personnel at the schools, that’s not something I’d be in favor of,” says Christina Sanders, who has a little girl in Kindergarten. “It’s a difficult balance to strike, to not instill fear in the children, but having them know what to do in case of an emergency. And that’s something I struggle with my little one who is 6 years old: how much to tell them about the reasons for these procedures.”

“Cameras would be great - I don’t know about locking the doors, you could have an earthquake or something else, a fire, but cameras would be great,” says Ivan Bran, who has a son in second grade.

“Sandy Hook’s been about a year now? I couldn’t imagine. Woo! You say ‘not my daughter’s school,’ but you just never know. But the guns definitely no, armed police, no,” says Wylie Manns, whose child is in second grade.

“I’m Bill Hajdu, a grandparent. I have 8- and 11-year old grandsons here. We’re teaching kids the wrong message, I mean you go to the middle school over there, it looks like a prison and now we’re going to have surveillance cameras? Pretty soon we’re going to have uniformed police? What message are we sending our kids? What kind of society do we want?”

How safe is ‘safe enough’? How much security would be too much for Berkeley? And how do you protect the innocence of childhood? It’s a question that troubles Susan Craig, “Metal detectors was one option and we did not even bring this to the board.

The philosophy in Berkeley is we don’t want our schools to become jails, we don’t want razor wire fence around our schools, we don’t want metal detectors at the entrances.”

At a time when shootings and stabbings seem to happen for no reason, Craig admits that, in the long run, piling on more and more security won’t necessarily keep an armed intruder from hurting her students, “It doesn't really stop the individuals who did the Columbine shooting. The individual who did the Sandy Hook shooting,  metal detectors would not have stopped those individuals.”

In the end, says Craig, keeping Berkeley schools safe from outside danger starts with making them safe on the inside. And that’s where the teachers and principals come in. One well-trained, quick-thinking staff member could save lives and keep Berkeley’s reputation for nonviolence intact.