Eric Riley, who has been a safety officer at Berkeley High School (BHS) since 2007, now hasn’t worked on campus in nearly a year. While Riley’s story may not seem all that different from that of countless teachers and staff in Berkeley and many other districts, the nature of his job is.
BHS’s safety officers, not to be confused with School Resource Officers, help students as they go about their days. Each of the twelve officers on campus has their own post, where they act as a cross between a security guard and a counselor. They are there to check in, and are generally available to students, or at least they were during in-person school.
Until mid-fall, safety officers were not working on campus at all. They would check in weekly with their supervisor online, and go through various remote trainings, but it was a far cry from their usual, inherently social jobs. Now, many officers are back on campus, with the normal twelve at BHS being reduced to six, and the rest distributed among Berkeley’s elementary schools.
Elementary schools usually do not have safety officers, but now there is one on each campus, despite the fact that students are not present in most schools.
Riley is stationed at Sylvia Mendez Elementary School, and while he’s glad to be back on a campus, his job description now has little in common with what he used to do.
“Right now I’m sitting in this hallway; I may have seen two people all morning,” said Riley. “I don’t interact with anyone. I just literally sit here in this empty, hollow building. … It’s like I’m stuck at a standstill. And that’s basically what I think all the other safety officers are doing too.”
For the officers at BHS, their experience is not much different, although they can at least return to posts they are more accustomed to. According to Raul Garcia, who is currently working at BHS, his main role is preventing unwanted visitors from coming to the school, along with protecting the campus from vandalism and other harm.
There are not many people on the BHS campus right now. For the most part, there is only a small number of teachers, custodians, the occasional construction crew for A-Building renovations, and, more recently, some sports teams.
Many safety officers miss the school environment they used to know. “The interactions and the energy that students have … especially when [they] have a plan or a vision for what [they] want to do after [they] leave … sometimes I pick up on that and I love seeing that,” said Walter Mitchell, a safety officer also working on the BHS campus.
As the BHS cross country team just returned with over 80 students, and the number of students on campus slowly increases, there is a chance BHS could return to what it used to be. However, safety officers aren’t counting on it.
Many are not interested in pushing for a more rapid return, whether it’s because they are resigned to the realities of distance learning or unsure of the safety of returning to school. Despite this, all safety officers who the Jacket spoke to said they felt safe in their current on-campus roles, especially as many have been or will be vaccinated in the near future.
In addition to safety, the officers have been fine economically, as they have been fully paid throughout the pandemic. According to Mitchell, some safety officers also have other jobs outside of BHS.
Despite the fact that working in-person is generally going well, the significant change in their work has not fully been accounted for. In part because of this, Riley is interested in changing the role of safety officers while students remain in online school. Riley said he even made the suggestion to Berkeley’s classified staff union before they decided on how exactly safety officers were to return to school.
“I was like, ‘Hey, I think you would get way more use out of us contacting kids that aren’t logging into Zoom, checking in with the kids, and following up with the kids and stuff like that. Just seeing what their needs are, whether that be the internet, computers, and stuff like that,’ ” said Riley. “We have those kids every day that come to school that fall between the cracks, that don’t get noticed, so I’m sure it’s like hundreds more now that they’re not being held accountable because there’s no one there to physically see them.”
While this did not end up coming to fruition, Riley still has hope for making more connections with students in the near future, and for now, he just wants the BHS community to remember safety officers and try to maintain a relationship with them in some way.
“Safety officers in general can get lost in transition due to issues like this. People don’t think twice, like, ‘Whatever happened to the safety officers?’ ” said Riley. “It seems like we might have been a lost commodity.”