(Published on Berkeleyside.com)
When lunchtime at Berkeley High rolls around at 11:38 a.m., the gate on the Allston side of the Allston Way Garage comes down. Security guards stand sentry. The gate is not pushed back up until the lunch hour is over at 12:18 p.m.
Even though the closed gate is an inconvenience for potential parkers, the owners of the garage have resorted to such extreme measures because the garage has been trashed by students in the past.
In the spring, groups of high-school students loitered in the garage, painted graffiti, gambled with “large wads of cash,” smoked marijuana in the stairwells, and engaged in sexual activity with other students and occasionally prostitutes, according to Heather Scott, property manager at the Allston Way Garage.
The results of the closed gate have been significant, said Scott. Since the beginning of September, no cars have been vandalized and graffiti tagging is down, she said. But, while her business has found a way to cope with the thousands of students who wander Berkeley’s downtown during lunch hour, other businesses have not. While most of the students behave well and contribute to the economy by buying lunch, a handful consistently make trouble by shoplifting and stealing, according to merchants.
“The high school absolutely swamps the downtown when they let out for lunch,” said Scott Newman, property owner at the Allston Way Garage. “I’m not trying to incriminate them all, but products walk out the door without being paid for.”
Scott and other downtown business owners want Berkeley High School and the Berkeley police to make stronger efforts to identify the students who are misbehaving and who are truant. Some are calling for the high school to close campus at lunch so students don’t act out downtown.
“The school doesn’t know what to do with these kids,” said Scott. “A safety officer at the high school has admitted that a percentage of the school population has more authority than the police,” he added.
Berkeley school officials, BPD and the city have recently started dialogue surrounding ways to collaborate on reducing youth crime in the area. And, despite the concerns of Scott and others, juvenile arrests have been declining in Berkeley in recent years, although the number of those arrested who are connected to Berkeley schools has risen. (Police have said previously this is likely due, at least in part, to better data keeping and may not indicate changing demographics as far as which youth are arrested.)
Berkeley police arrested 89 juveniles between January and September 2014, the most recent data available from the department. Though the data for the year were incomplete, those numbers have been on the decline since 2011, when 218 juveniles were arrested, according to police data.
More than half of the juveniles arrested in 2014 were listed as Berkeley Unified School District students, and 83% were listed as Berkeley residents. According to police data, at least 53% of the juveniles arrested in 2014 came from BUSD schools.
Police have said, however, that the data are incomplete, with the other 47% either going to school elsewhere, or attending an unknown school. Police have said they are working to improve the data, to help provide better services to students, but are limited legally as far as how much information they can share with the district.
Behavior in Allston Way Garage, other businesses “old news,” but spiked this spring
The Allston Way Garage is located at the intersection of Allston Way and Harold Way, just a few blocks away from BHS. It has two entrances, one on Allston Way and one on Center Street.
While problematic behavior from BHS students is old news to many businesses, Scott reported a noticeable “spike” in incidents at her garage and surrounding businesses in the last two weeks of the 2015 school year.
“The last two weeks of school were really bad — I ended up hiring extra security, my chief engineers all had extra security, and we were all patrolling the garage stairs,” Scott said. She detailed that her parking attendants, who are not trained as security guards, felt threatened by groups of students coming into the garage.
Newman described an encounter with a student who barreled through the garage on a skateboard and jumped up and hit one of the garage signs, which came unhooked and landed on Newman’s car. “That’s the easy stuff,” Newman said. “But others are so persistent to get into the garage that they’ll wait by the entrance stairwell until someone comes down and opens the door.”
“It’s a game of cat and mouse — they think it’s funny.”
“These kids come up to tenants, or our garage attendants, and get in their faces,” Scott said. She also reported that young women who work at an office next to the garage have reported to her aggressive and verbally threatening behavior by the youths. Some security guards who have worked in downtown Berkeley for years and “know” the prostitutes who work in the area have seen these prostitutes have sex with students in the garage, said Scott.
Mark Coplan, BHS Public Informations Officer, declined to comment on possible BHS student activity downtown for this article, instead bringing to attention the number of homeless teens and youths under 21 that populate Berkeley. Scott agreed that not all the malfeasance in the garage and nearby businesses are at the hands of students, and could also be linked to struggling youth on the streets.
Homeless youth are often identified by experts as a “hidden population” that has been historically undercounted.EveryOneHome, a government agency that aids homeless people in Alameda County, counted 4,264 homeless people in their latest study in 2013, with 435 youths (10% of the homeless population) identifying as “transition-aged youths” between the ages of 18 and 24. BHS, among other Berkeley organizations such as YEAH! Youth Engagement, Advocacy, and Housing, does offer counseling and basic necessities to try and keep youths off the street and in school.
Most official records of police calls to the garage also do not specifically refer to BHS students. According to BPD Information Officer Jennifer Coats, the department has received 21 calls to the garage since January 2015 ranging from fire alarms, aid to citizen, property damage, auto burglary, and disturbance and fight calls. “Of the calls for service, only one call has the involved parties described as being high-school age,” Coats said.
The aforementioned report was for a fight on Jan. 1, 2015, where youths had dispersed when BPD officers arrived on the scene.
“We continue to work with the Berkeley Unified School District to address concerns related to possible student activities,” Coats said.
These statistics probably don’t reflect the issues at the Allston Street Garage, however, since the majority of disruptive behavior and vandalism witnessed by garage employees is not called into BPD, said Scott. But she and others believe the perpetrators are BHS students hanging in the area.
Scott said that they have identified several BHS students who frequent the area— some of whom have been reported truant by the high school. “If the student is reported as truant, the school says they can’t do anything about them,” Scott said.
“This is an ongoing issue,” she continued. “It’s impossible to keep them out, and it shouldn’t be our issue.”
The BPD is “well aware” of who the students are, Scott said. “They are aware that the students are not attending school and have been reported as truant, and there’s nothing much the school can do,” she said.
Scott filed a case against a group of students with the police after a fire extinguisher was stolen from the garage premises in July. A car of one of the chief engineers at the garage was also vandalized by students — apparently in retaliation for kicking them out of the garage earlier.
Scott detailed that parking attendants in her garage also frequently find abandoned products or youths sorting stolen merchandise from the nearby Walgreens on Shattuck Avenue.
Walgreens declined to comment for this article when reached by phone.
A screenshot of surveillance footage of the June 22 attempted robbery at Paris Baguette. Photo: Heather Scott
Paris Baguette, a chain bakery located on Shattuck at Allston Way, is one Berkeley business that has encountered problems with young people on the street.
On June 22, security footage documented an attempted robbery by a student-aged individual at the bakery. The video shows a young man grabbing at the tip jar behind the counter and exchanging punches with a customer before being wrestled almost to the ground. The man ended up fleeing the store.
Tae Pak, the store manager, told Berkeleyside that he couldn’t confirm that the attempted robbery was done by a student, but that the store suffers from similar activity often perpetuated by students. High-school kids will frequently come into the store, grab pastries and leave, he said.
“I know that he was a guy who always hangs around the front of the store,” Pak said regarding the robber.
Open-campus rule at BHS should be reevaluated, Newman and Scott say
The open-campus rule at BHS, which allows students of all grades to venture out into downtown Berkeley for lunch, is controversial among downtown businesses.
“The open campus policy is driving [the student behavior],” Newman said. “At best, the kids should earn the freedom of off-campus privileges.”
For Newman, it’s the school’s responsibility to step up and take ownership of these kids, even at lunchtime. “If they’re going to have their kids off-campus, they should be out there defending their property rights,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to spend 10,000 dollars cleaning up after these kids.”
Tae Pak, the manager at Paris Baguette, confirmed that many of the thefts that occurred at his store take place during the BHS lunch hour.
On-campus security staff are not allowed to patrol students off-campus, a fact that troubles Newman and Scott. “If the school was motivated, they could remedy the situation,” Newman said. “Again, I keep thinking to myself that I’m a parent and I have two high school kids — I assume the school is taking care of them from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. — so if they were off-campus doing whatever they wanted, I would be concerned.”
In April, BHS administration did restrict off-campus access when reports of a possible fight in downtown Berkeley were circulating. A few week earlier, several BHS students were arrested and others faced school discipline for a series of 15-20 fights that took place off-campus in the afternoon after school hours.
During this incident, former interim BHS Principal Kristin Glenchur sent an email to students, staff and families that specifically stated that “school discipline can be issued for incidents which occur after school or off-campus.”
“I’m sure there are great kids at the high school,” Scott said. “It’s too bad that a small group of kids give them a bad name.”
“Closing campus doesn’t solve any problems,” said Lance Gorée, operations manager for the Downtown Berkeley Ambassadors program. The school can only feed 800 out of the 3,300 enrolled students, making the downtown businesses an important part of the lunch schedule for the remaining students.
“You’ve got to give them the opportunity to feed themselves,” Gorée said.
In reference to other business owners advocating for a closed campus, “that’s like me trying to advocate for the sun not to come up,” he said. “[BHS is] in a situation where they have to open up the campus.
Gorée said that downtown administration is putting pressure on the school to clean up activity downtown. “What we’ve been trying to do is work with the high school to try and get more information out to the parents and the students about the behavior that seems to be followed out on the streets,” he said.
“I don’t know what the answer is, but [as to the idea of] closing the campus – you have almost an ice cube’s chance in hell of that happening,” he said. “That’s why I don’t even think about it.”
BHS declined to comment on the issue of student behavior during off-campus lunch hours.
“They are here for a reason:” Bad behavior downtown indicative of bigger socioeconomic issues
Gorée says that there’s a lot more going on than simply bad kids messing around downtown. Race, socioeconomic standing, and age play a part in a situation that has spiraled out of control.
“These kids are mean,” he said. “But they are for a reason.”
He said that many of these students or youths come from unstable home situations, rough neighborhoods, and subsequently their “tough act” is one of survival.
“Drug dealers are showing up before school, lunchtime, after school, preying on these kids,” he said, explaining how dealers will try and recruit high school kids for their business or sell them drugs.
There is also unquestionably a racial and age element at play, Gorée acknowledged.
The kids in question are reportedly mostly black male students, adding a racial element to reports of intimidation, robbery, loitering and vandalism.
As the nation grapples with the a series of shootings of black youth and men by police, as well as the strength of the Black Lives Matters movement in the Bay Area and at BHS, the downtown Berkeley administration is sensitive of this fact when dealing with this case.
“When we see these cliques and gangs from a public perspective — visually, yes, there is a race issue,” Gorée said.
But he also explained that one of the biggest issues is partly the students’ young age. “It’s a coming of age and an immaturity issue at the core,” he said.
Most of the students cutting class and hanging out downtown are freshman and sophomores — kids who might not yet have the pressure of college and “the future” weighing them down. “They start getting focused in on school in that last semester of junior year, and we see them less,” he said.
Gorée highlighted work underway to implement a training plan for downtown businesses to mitigate negative interactions. “These kids are definitely tough — and as adults throughout the businesses, we need to know how to deescalate situations,” he said.
“Certain groups can get attached to a certain area, just like our cliques in high school — we all had our area,” Gorée said. “What we need to do is to figure out how to get these kids to understand what’s happening out there.”
Scott, who volunteers at the South Alameda County Youth Soccer League (SACYSL), believes that BHS should do more to occupy students and keep them off the streets.
“Just as a mother with two kids, it’s really sad to me that we can’t do something more to help these kids,” Scott said. “We all want the high schoolers to have a good experience at school, and somebody — either the city or the school — needs to figure out a way to contain this element that’s causing so many issues for the garage and for the nearby businesses.”
“As a business, it’s not our responsibility to patrol the area,” she said. “Our employees and our tenants need to feel safe. We need to find a solution.”