Thievery threat thwarted, maybe permanently
On November 1, Atherton police arrested two Menlo College students for allegedly stealing electronic devices from Menlo School students’ backpacks. Since repeated thefts on the Upper School campus have been reported throughout October, Atherton police believe the two students may be responsible for the other incidents as well. As the police continue to investigate, weighing heavily on Menlo students is the disturbance of the sense of trust and safety on campus.
Eighteen-year-old Menlo College students Raphael Daniel Bettan and Ryan Goodman were booked into San Mateo County Jail on the evening of Nov. 1 on grand theft charges. According to Atherton police Sgt. Sherman Hall, the two were later released on bail.
Earlier that day, Middle School coach Mike Taylor and sophomore Donya Dehnad noticed Bettan and Goodman removing backpacks from the Upper School quad, then disappearing into the grove of trees between the Menlo School and Menlo College campuses. “I noticed these sketchy guys walking around the main quad. They were looking at different backpacks and eventually picked up one each,” Dehnad said. She noted that one of the backpacks picked up belonged her friend. According to Taylor, Dehnad mentioned that she had never seen the two students before, and suggested that she and Taylor follow them.
“We followed them into the forest area […] and they were going through the backpacks there. But when they heard us coming they packed up and left quickly,” Dehnad said. “[Taylor asked] them if they went to the high school and one answered ‘yes’ while the other stayed silent.”
Taylor and Dehnad then followed the students through the college campus. While Dehnad called Menlo School Security, Taylor approached Bettan and asked him simple questions about Menlo School. Bettan could not answer any of Taylor’s questions regarding Menlo teachers. “Obviously [the two] didn’t go to school here,” Taylor said.
Meanwhile, Goodman was a distance ahead of Taylor, continuing to walk through the college. Security soon met Taylor and Bettan in the college parking lot. While security dealt with Bettan, Taylor pursued Goodman. “I said [to Goodman], ‘I know what you’re doing! Drop the backpack so I don’t have to run after you,’” Taylor said. Goodman promptly dropped the backpack and continued walking. “I was happy to finally get the backpack back. I opened it and saw that it was [freshman Miles Fowler]’s,” Taylor said.
After recovering Fowler’s backpack, Taylor returned to the security guard and Bettan, who then attempted to run away. “That guy [took off] running in a dead sprint. Some kind of instinct kicked in where I just ran after him. I dropped the backpack, threw my hat off and then I just sprinted, and he took off around the pool and ended up going into [a dorm] on Menlo College’s campus,” Taylor said. “I followed him up the stairs and caught him on the second flight of stairs. Then I dragged him back out to the security guard, and Atherton [Police] was there waiting for him.”
The Atherton police later found Goodman and detained him without incident. In a subsequent search of the students’ dormitory, the police discovered allegedly stolen electronic devices including computers, two iPads, five graphing calculators, an iPod, and an iPhone. The backpacks Bettan and Goodman had stolen, belonging to Fowler and sophomore Maddy Price, were returned to their owners. Price’s backpack contained an iPad. According to senior Kaitlin Demma, Price had been looking for her backpack during the incident.
“I’m glad I was able to help,” Dehnad said. “I could’ve just [shaken] it off but the guys seemed really sketchy, and when you see sketchy people on campus you can’t just ignore it.”
According to Hall, the Atherton police “strongly suspect” that Bettan and Goodman are responsible for the other thefts that have occurred on the Upper School campus. However, the police currently cannot prove this assumption. “It is an ongoing investigation,” Hall said.
Menlo College Provost James Woolever asserted that the college is concerned about the charges and is taking the incident seriously. “Menlo College is a small and very close community of students, faculty and staff who stress the importance of respect and responsible behavior, both on and off campus,” Woolever said. He added that “Menlo College has a judicial process that handles violations of our code of conduct.”
According to Director of Communications Darcy Blake, the college is still analyzing what happened and what should be done in response. “We will continue to look at ways to protect students at both schools and to foster an atmosphere of mutual trust and good will between the two institutions,” she said. Due to privacy concerns, Menlo College declined comment regarding the suspension of the two students.
Menlo School Dean of Students Tony Lapolla has already met with college officials in response to the thefts, and hopes the two schools will continue to collaborate. Lapolla feels Menlo College has been “very forthright and helpful” throughout the investigation process. He added that now is an especially good time to review security on the Menlo School campus and even explore the possibility of installing security cameras. “Cameras are something we’ve considered in the past,” Lapolla said. “[We will] have to take another look at that.”
Like Lapolla, Head of School Norm Colb emphasized how pleased he is with the way Menlo College has reacted to the situation. “It has confirmed my sense that the administration of Menlo College is extremely thoughtful and invested in everybody’s well-being. They have reacted quite appropriately,” Colb said. Blake agreed, noting that “a stronger rapport between the schools will develop.”
Though an occurrence of this nature has the potential to create tension between the two schools, Colb stated that the thefts haven’t changed the relationship between Menlo School and College at all. “This is my nineteenth year [at Menlo]. […] There has been the least tension this year between the two institutions,” Colb said.
The rare thefts on campus are normally distributed throughout the school year, but last month’s concentrated occurrences have prompted evaluation of Menlo’s overall feeling of trust and safety on campus. “The thefts are a violation of the trust that’s such a characteristic of this campus,” Colb said.
According to Lapolla, the thefts that occurred during the weeks preceding the arrests of Bettan and Goodman mainly involved money and portable electronics, and all confirmed thefts occurred on the Upper School quad. No classrooms, offices, or desk drawers were broken into.
These incidents have ruffled the Menlo community and evoked discussion and concern among students, some of whom have even begun to lock their valuables in lockers or cars during the school day. “It honestly is a bit scary thinking that it is extremely easy to steal at our school. Menlo is built on trust from its own students and the surrounding area but now that trust is starting to be broken,” Fowler said.
Junior Clarissa Klein, whose wallet was stolen last month, commented that she has always been especially careful about leaving her belongings out in the open, and was therefore surprised that her wallet was one of the items stolen. “It’s kind of like my personal space has been violated,” Klein said. “Now I keep my backpack with me a lot more.”
Junior Tom Flippin’s computer was recently stolen from his car, prompting him to watch his belongings more carefully as well. “Instead of keeping my computer by my backpack in the hallway, I actually put it in my locker as much as possible if I’m not taking it with me,” Flippin said. “I generally take pride in the Menlo high school students being ethical, and I trust them not to spontaneously steal my articles. But this behavior from Menlo College is beginning to worry me.”
Menlo School has earned the reputation of being typically safe and is regarded as a secure place to leave belongings unattended. But it is an open campus nonetheless, and thus inevitably subject to occasional theft. “People tend leave things around and I always say to people, ‘You have to be responsible for your property. You can’t just assume that you can leave something and it’ll be there when you get back,’” Lapolla said.
But in spite of this pattern, students’ confidence in others to respect their belongings remains a distinguishing feature of the school. “Is the foundation—that trusting environment, that caring environment—still there? Absolutely. Have we chipped away at it a little if this is happening? Maybe. And I don’t like that,” Lapolla said. “But to the basic core of our community, we are still a very trusting place.”
Colb plans to address Menlo students at an upcoming assembly regarding the thefts and “plans that should curtail and hopefully eliminate” further incidents. Due to the growing number of valuable electronics in students’ backpacks, “we need to learn to be more vigilant […] without losing that lovely sense of trust,” Colb said. “I don’t have a specific plan yet, but one is being built.”
Meanwhile, students, for the most part, continue to leave backpacks on the quad and in the hallways, expressing the ongoing sense of trust among the student body. On the other hand, these incidents have served as a reminder to students that even a generally safe campus like Menlo cannot be completely free of theft. “There are things you just can’t account for. You never know who’s going to walk through,” Lapolla said.