Parents of UC Berkeley students have launched a new nonprofit called SafeBears to lobby for greater safety measures in the city, especially on and near the Cal campus.
SafeBears is an all-volunteer group run by Cal parents in partnership with representatives from UC Berkeley, city government and local merchants who want to "make safety a greater priority at the school," said Sagar Jethani, SafeBears president, this week.
The group's priorities include more UCPD officers, more night shuttles and better dormitory security, including gated access and security staffing in every dorm.
SafeBears is also pushing for free or subsidized rideshares for students after dark, which is on offer at other colleges, and better lighting in student-heavy neighborhoods.
Last fall, Cal parents began pressuring UC Berkeley to do more on the public safety front after a series of problematic incidents on and around campus.
A fatal shooting just blocks from campus in October ratcheted up concerns even higher.
UC Berkeley organized meetings in the fall to address safety concerns, but parents said they didn't see much in the way of results.
"We were assured meaningful steps would be taken to make students safer. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen," Jethani said. "The administration approached us like a PR exercise. We were invited to Zoom calls where only UC was allowed to speak."
Read more about campus-related crime around UC Berkeley.
Since then, parents have been brainstorming ways they might have a stronger voice.
The result was SafeBears, which went live this month. (Final approval for the group's nonprofit status is pending.)
"Commonsense safety measures"
Several hundred people — including parents of Cal freshmen and older students, as well as those who have graduated — have already signed up to receive the group's updates and be part of its work.
Jethani said campus officials did take some action last year, hiring private security to patrol around dorms for a few months and signing up more community service officers, who are students.
"It was encouraging," he said, "but there are so many more things Chancellor Christ should do."
Jethani said UCPD is at least 25 officers short of full staffing, and that UC Berkeley still hasn't fully restored its night safety shuttle service to pre-COVID levels.
Parents also want UC Berkeley to make it harder for strangers to get inside dorms by installing keycard-enabled gates and posting security monitors at the entrance to each dorm.
"None of these are radical solutions," he said. "They’re the kind of commonsense safety measures you see at universities across the country."
Unfortunately, he said, officials have often used "the same worn excuses" to explain why such efforts and programs may be a tough sell, citing everything from high costs to the nationwide challenge of attracting qualified officers.
Jethani said SafeBears isn't willing to take no for an answer.
And the group is committed, he said, to working closely with the university to improve student safety.
"We get that challenges exist," he said. "We want the administration to engage with us as real stakeholders dedicated to making Cal safer."
Parents are just one of several stakeholder groups the university is tasked with listening to.
Most of the organized student-led efforts in recent years have focused on reducing the police presence on campus and redefining what public safety looks like.
But there are also students and other members of the campus community who have said they feel unsafe and that they want UC Berkeley to do more.
More recently, police investigated a sex crime series on and near the UC Berkeley campus in which multiple women were grabbed.
(UCPD has not said exactly how many incidents were tied to the same suspect, citing the ongoing investigation.)
It's incidents like these that have spurred parents since the fall to organize to have a bigger voice.
Jethani said SafeBears is now looking to grow its membership and will be a regular presence at local meetings related to campus safety and Berkeley policing to make sure its voice is heard.
"You may hear us speaking up during public comment, making sure they know our views as extended members of the Berkeley community," he said. "We're focusing on not only the university but on the larger environment our students live in."
To aid in its advocacy work, the group has made it easy for members to write to local and university officials by offering email templates on its website.
SafeBears, Jethani said, was founded as a nonpartisan advocacy group for anybody who wants to see a safer UC Berkeley, whether you're a Cal parent or student, faculty member or administrator, law enforcement, local government or local merchants.
It's an incredibly diverse group, he added, of people who have views all across the spectrum.
SafeBears members are now meeting with local officials and building partnerships with business and neighborhood groups to build the coalition.
One of those local partners is the Downtown Berkeley Association, which represents Berkeley merchants in the downtown area.
John Caner, who runs the DBA, said he is excited to work with SafeBears and see it raise awareness about student safety in Berkeley.
"We need to engage all of the Berkeley community around safety issues. And clearly, parents and students are a vital part of our community," he said. "My hope is that the business community, the university community and the neighborhoods can work together constructively to address these issues."
Group members are also meeting with safety and security experts at other universities to learn what tools and approaches have worked elsewhere.
"UC Berkeley is not the only school based in an urban environment, but sometimes that's the way administrators talk about it," Jethani said. "We think Cal can learn what schools in similar settings can do to keep students safe."
"The one thing everybody who joins us agrees on is the need for a safer Cal. That’s what we’re about," Jethani said. "We’re looking forward to adding more members to our ranks who can join with us to push for the changes we need."