Concern raised over drugs, truancy at Berkeley High School due to nearby Occupy camp

Occupy Berkeley protesters setting up tents in Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Center Park in early October.
Rashad Sisemore/Staff
Occupy Berkeley protesters setting up tents in Martin Luther King, Jr. Civic Center Park in early October.

A recent surge in the number of Occupy Berkeley protesters camping out at the park across the street from Berkeley High School has led to concerns about the accessibility of drugs and alcohol at the park for students.

Berkeley High School principal Pasquale Scuderi explained in a message to the high school community Nov. 30 that making sure students are not in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park —  a popular lunch spot for students — during class time has become more difficult because of the encampment, especially after the number of tents there increased following Thanksgiving break.

“Keeping an eye on our students is a bit more challenging in the park at present with administrators and safety staff having to visually identify BHS students amongst increased numbers of adults, young adults, college students, teenaged non-students, and almost 90 tents,” Scuderi said in the message.

Over the past week, dialogue has ensued between the demonstrators, city and school administrators — including a meeting Wednesday between Scuderi and Berkeley City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin — to improve the situation regarding truancy as well as alcohol.

Scuderi said that staff have noted an increase in the amount of marijuana and open alcohol use at the park recently.

However, Arreguin, whose district encompasses the school, said truancy and student drug use have been longstanding problems at the park.

“I look outside my window and see students smoking pot in the park during school hours,” he said. “These issues predate the Occupy encampment.”

Arreguin and Scuderi met Wednesday to discuss how the city and the school can better communicate and collaborate, particularly in light of the Occupy Berkeley situation.

“Our police department and parks department have all been monitoring the situation and keeping in communication with the demonstrators over sanitation, drug use and inappropriate behavior,” Arreguin said.

Arreguin suggested the school change its off-campus policy and stagger lunches, so as to better manage students.

“Overall the high school needs to do a much better job dealing with the issues of truancy and supervising, and having a more active presence in the park,” he said.

Scuderi said the school has made progress in monitoring students in the last year and a half, particularly through joint sweeps with the police department to check for student truancy at the park.

“We’ve made some significant progress by letting the students know that (the park) isn’t a place to go and not be held accountable,” he said. “With that being said, it has become a little more difficult (in) the last several weeks with the Occupy movement to sort out who is who.”

Arreguin said the city is currently monitoring the situation at Occupy Berkeley and working with demonstrators to address possible issues. There are currently no plans to evict the demonstrators, he said.

Raven Lighthall, Berkeley resident and head of security at the Occupy Berkeley camp, said maintaining security and keeping the peace has been one of the camp’s main priorities.

“We’re all about the schools and education and protecting students,” Lighthall said. “(Students) are allowed to hang out, but we don’t share drugs or alcohol.”

High school junior Billy Gonzalez, who hangs around the park frequently, said it does not bother him that there are an increased number of people at the park.

“It’s not harmful, they’re pretty peaceful,” he said. “If they see fights (between students), they try to help break it up.”

Gonzalez said he has not noticed an increase in the number of students drinking alcohol at the park but has noticed more students using drugs there, though not necessarily with Occupy Berkeley demonstrators.

Lighthall said he has seen students smoking on the outskirts of the park, though to his knowledge, no high school student has approached the camp asking for anything, he said.

“We’re trying to change the stigma of being a homeless camp and be seen more as a political movement,” he said. “We’re trying to make (the encampment) work with everyone, so kids and families can come out here and join us.”

Weiru Fang covers local schools.