By Doug Oakley
Bay Area News Group
When Ginny Roemer's son was robbed of his $400 iPhone 4 at Berkeley High School directly under a surveillance camera last year, she figured it would be easy to catch and discipline the perpetrator.
Instead, security staff at the school simply told the former San Francisco assistant district attorney that "my son was not in danger," she said and that was the end of the story.
Not satisfied, her son pointed out the perpetrator to a Berkeley police officer at the school who arrested the student. Turns out the student security officials said was not a threat also had a warrant for his arrest in a separate, more violent robbery.
Now due to Roemer's persistence and pressure by the Berkeley police, the school district has changed its practice and is reporting all campus robberies to police, said Susan Craig director of student services for the school district.
Craig said the practice of doing little about robberies at Berkeley High may have affected safety in the city as a whole over time.
"One of the areas of concern in this community is robberies and home burglaries, some of which are done by youth and sometimes during school lunch hour," said Craig.
"We hope to send the message that the district and the police are unified in community safety."
Craig said in addition to reporting campus robbers to the police, who will make a determination of whether to issue a citation or make an arrest, kids who steal from others will be referred to a new intervention program.
"Our intent is not to criminalize more students, but to set a tone and say we are looking at interventions to turn behavior around," Craig said. "It's a middle path and through our intervention programs we are not just going to lock them up." Craig said the district changed the nonreporting practice at the urging of Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan and "community members who shared stories of their kids being victims of robberies who were concerned about our practice that not all robberies were reported to police."
Berkeley Police spokeswoman Sgt. Mary Kusmiss declined to comment specifically about how the department persuaded the district to start reporting.
"There was thoughtful dialogue about the process and the district was very receptive," Kusmiss said.
With a new consequence introduced to those who steal at Berkeley High, Craig said she hopes reporting to police will stop make students think twice.
"Perhaps there can be an earlier intervention that will help turn a student around who may be on a path of stealing an iPhone this week or breaking into a house and stealing a computer the next week and other serious things," Craig said.
The new policy is a relief to people like Elizabeth Scherer, whose son had his jaw broken by several youths following a dance at Berkeley High six years ago.
She was able to find video surveillance footage of the Shattuck Avenue attack and asked Berkeley High administrators to help her identify the attackers. But they refused to even look at the tape, she said.
"The school wouldn't look at the videotape, they wouldn't work with the police and the police wouldn't work with the school," Scherer said. "Now I'm hopeful, but I'm definitely skeptical." Roemer agreed.
"I'm guardedly thrilled," Roemer said. "It makes so much sense. And it doesn't even cost any money for God's sakes." Roemer said when she started pressing district administrators about why they wouldn't work with police, she was "full of disbelief."
"I was told point blank that the students had a constitutional right to privacy and any information about their misconduct would not be shared with law enforcement," Roemer said. "I think there was this concern about locking up kids who are underprivileged and it may have been mishandled. Being able to get away with robberies is not any help at all."
Craig said that school district lawyers had been advising the district in the past not to report the robberies.
"We checked with our legal council, who shared with us there were some legal cases where school districts had gotten in trouble for profiling students and over reporting," Craig said.
She emphasized that the school district does not want to "criminalize students.
``We want to intervene and find the correct point where we are assuring safe schools and for those making poor choices we want to correct the behavior rather than just expel, report to the police and say 'you're out of here.'"
Craig said the issue of campus robberies and cooperation with the police came to a head last spring when the school started holding safety meetings following a wave of arrests at Berkeley High for gun possession.
"The firearms were a real wake up call for the district," Craig said. "It brought to light a lot of issues around guns, bullying, robberies and a lot of things we are taking a close look at."
Doug Oakley covers Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley