Op-Ed

An Open Letter to the Student Body

One of the most important responsibilities I feel as your principal is to keep you safe. So often, that involves imagining how to protect you and our school from outside threats – an earthquake, an active shooter, even bad air quality. This past Red and Gold Day, I watched with dismay as we were unable to maintain a safe campus, though the threat was not from outside but from how some of you were treating each other.

Obviously the last few days of school have been full of conversations about what happened, and how upsetting and unsafe a lot of the behavior was for other students, adults, and community members who were subjected to it. As I have visited classrooms, listened to your thoughts, and talked with various members of our wider community, some very clear themes have emerged. I want to share them with you as we contemplate what needs to happen next year so that we do not find ourselves repeating the harm that was caused both within our student body and to those outside: members of the public, and first responders including the Berkeley Police and Fire Departments.

I want those of you reading this to know that of course I am aware that not all of you did things that harmed others. Some of you had a fun day, some of you watched and chose not to engage with any of the screaming and shouting, and some of you went home to avoid the entire scene. And some of you reading this are exactly the students who were at the center of the worst behaviors on Friday. This letter is for all of you, because I firmly believe that all of our students will need to choose the kind of culture change that needs to happen for this day to ever become something better than it was on Friday.

Some of the most common things I’m hearing from you include:

Many of you see the chanting and screaming as a relatively harmless version of class pride, and don’t condone the violent acts that resulted in students getting hurt

The need to relieve stress after a long first quarter led to students feeling like they could say and do things that were out of character and out of control

For juniors and seniors, an intense and ongoing rivalry this year was reflected on social media leading up to Friday and helped to fuel the usual chanting into something more dangerous and destructive

Many of you acknowledge that some students are likely to “do whatever they want” while at the same time, you note that more proactive conversations from admin and BHS staff about clear expectations for behavior on Friday would have been welcome

Two of the questions I have been asked most after Friday are “Ms. Schweng, was this Red and Gold Day worse than all the other ones?” and “Are you going to cancel it next year?” As for the first question, I have seen worse things happen on this day in the past, but I don’t think that’s actually what matters. What matters is that even a single student being harmed or harassed makes this week not worth it. 

We will be figuring out in the coming months what will be our next steps, but our priority is making a cultural change in which we all hold ourselves accountable to make it possible for Berkeley High to celebrate in a way that all of us can be proud of.

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