Community members react to racist image, high school response at school board meeting

Suyang Lu/Staff

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Community members — many parents from Berkeley High School — voiced concern regarding a recent racist incident on campus during a school board meeting Wednesday.

Individuals spoke during the meeting’s extended public comment section and called on the board to be more accountable for the students it represents.

At the meeting, Patricia Middleton, who was born in Berkeley, said the racist incident that occurred at BHS affects all black people, not just students.

“I am appalled with what’s going on here,” Middleton said. “I feel like I am a little girl back in the 1960s. … My parents and my siblings grew up in the Jim Crow South so we take any threats seriously. … Why shouldn’t we feel safe in a community we helped build?”

Citing his experience travelling across the country, Bobby Cephus Johnson — known as “Uncle Bobby” in the community — said the “system is hemorrhaging on Black Lives Matter, institutionalized racism and white supremacy.”

Johnson added that the board holds responsibility for Berkeley students, and therefore must address the threat in a proper way.

“You are responsible for these students,” Johnson said. “Make sure these students know that you will hold anyone that is in direct wrong accountable for their wrong.”

Chair of BHS Parents of Children of African Descent Laura Babitt proposed that the school district send out an automated alert to parents’ phones at all Berkeley schools as soon as incidents occur.

Babitt said she was upset and afraid for her child — who attends Longfellow Middle School — and other students’ safety because of the district’s failure to notify parents when the incident happened. Babitt first found out about the incident through media.

More than 2,000 BHS students and school staff marched through Berkeley on Nov. 5 to protest after finding a threatening image targeted at black students displayed on a library computer.

According to Sam Pasarow, BHS principal, the student who was responsible was identified within 24 hours of the incident. Berkeley Police Department met with the student and the student’s guardian and determined that the student who made racial threats did not have the capacity or intent to act on them.

Because of district policies on student privacy, further information about the student — including the student’s name and race — and the consequences of their actions, were not to be disclosed, said Donald Evans, superintendent of Berkeley Unified School District. He noted, however, that the student was no longer on campus.

In response to the delayed incident alert, Pasarow said there was not any evidence of immediate danger, therefore he felt no inclination to frighten the public by sharing the incident.

“In retrospect, I wish I had stopped the investigation for a minute to send out a short announcement that would have addressed the fears and concerns of … students and their families,” Pasarow said.

After roughly an hour and a half of public comments, Judy Appel, school district board president, said, “I want you to know that I stand as an ally to the best of my ability. I mess up sometimes, like we all do as allies, but that is where I stand.”

Appel said she looks forward to having further conversations with the community, PCAD and the NAACP and that she wants to help create a “safe space” for students to feel supported.

Contact Jason Tran at [email protected].