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How Generations of Berkeley High Students Forced a Reckoning About Sexual Abuse

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How Generations of Berkeley High Students Forced a Reckoning About Sexual Abuse

Picture of Holly McDede

This story by Holly McDede, a 2021 Impact Fellow, is part of a larger project seeking to gather data and understand how often harassment and assault are reported in Californian high schools. 

Her other stories include:

Lowell Students Say #MeToo. Sexual Abuse Allegations Spark Reckoning at SF High School

How High School Students Launched Their Own #MeToo Movement During the Pandemic

Los Gatos Student Journalists Say Adviser Censored Reporting on Sexual Assault

A former Berkeley High student sued the district in January 2020, alleging she was sexually assaulted by another student during
A former Berkeley High student sued the district in January 2020, alleging she was sexually assaulted by another student during school hours in an unlocked classroom, and that the district failed to take steps to adequately ensure her safety. A student-led walkout followed.
(Beth LaBerge/KQED)
KQED
Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Women’s Student Union at Berkeley High School sued the U.S. Department of Education earlier this month over Title IX rules adopted during the Trump administration that govern how schools respond to cases of sexual harassment and assault.

Those rules, announced last May and implemented in August under former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos , offer more protections for students who are accused of sexual misconduct. They apply to colleges as well as K-12 schools. The Women's Student Union – a student-founded and student-led group that advocates for policies to reduce sexual harassment on Berkeley High's campus – argued in its lawsuit that the policy discourages students from reporting harassment and schools from investigating complaints.

This latest action by students comes more than a year after victims and advocates at Berkeley High organized a walkout in February 2020 to demand changes over how misconduct was handled on their own campus.

"We were realizing that a lot of the issues that students at Berkeley High were facing stemmed from national policies," said Ava, a junior at Berkeley High and one of the students who filed the lawsuit. “And if we could change national policies, we could help people at every school in the United States, not just Berkeley High.” KQED is identifying Ava by only her first name over fears she could face harassment.

In the year since the walkout, the Berkeley Unified School District has adopted some changes in response to students' demands. In December, the district announced they had hired a full-time Title IX coordinator and investigator, and set up a committee of mostly Berkeley High School students to lead some of the changes around consent education.

It's not the first time the district's students and adult advocates have demanded changes in how their schools handle misconduct complaints.

A History of Activism at Berkeley High

In 2014, Berkeley High alum Liana Thomason and her classmates started the group BHS Stop Harassing. She said they founded the group after comments made during a school assembly seemed to blame harassment on the ways students dressed. But Thomason said the need was about more than just those comments.

“The unofficial story is that there had just been this culture of harassment in Berkeley High and middle school. There was Slap Ass Friday where boys would slap the girls' asses on Friday,” Thomason said. “And it was just like, ‘This is what the world is like. That's fine.' "

After the assembly, Thomason invited a group of female friends to her house to talk about what they saw as a culture of unchecked harassment.

“We realized that we had to say something. We had to let the school know that it was not OK,” she said.

Berkeley High students had also created an Instagram account on which some female students were referred to as "sluts" alongside degrading photos of them. Thomason was also motivated to address these issues after her sister was sexually assaulted at a middle school bike cage in 2014. She said the school responded by setting up a restorative justice circle that traumatized her sister even more.

Thomason's mother, Heidi Goldstein, became an adviser for BHS Stop Harassing and is still working on these issues today.

“I started researching Title IX and school district policies,” Goldstein said. “And that’s where I came to the conclusion that the whole system was just in disarray. There was no system and there really was no process.”

Liana Thomason, right, a Berkeley High alum, founded the group BHS Stop Harassing. Her mother Heidi Goldstein continues to be an adult adviser for the group. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Goldstein filed a complaint with the U.S Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights about how the school handled misconduct complaints, prompting an investigation.

Members of BHS Stop Harassing began showing up at school board meetings to demand better policies around sexual harassment and more training for teachers as well as education for students.

"The Berkeley Public School District places an immense value on student safety and well-being," former BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans and BUSD Board President Judy Appel wrote in a letter to district families at the time. "Based on student, teacher, and community feedback about this and other related issues, we have come to realize that there is an urgent need to work on developing a culture focused on prevention of sexual harassment, not simply reacting to it."

The Wild West of Title IX Regulations

Maha Ibrahim, an attorney with Equal Rights Advocates, a nonprofit that advocates for gender equity in schools, has worked with Berkeley High students. She said few schools do a sufficient job responding to sexual harassment or assault claims.

“The federal rules and regulations for Title IX have been written for universities – and schools K-12 were an afterthought,” Ibrahim said. “It’s like the Wild West. It's a lot of individual adults who are shooting from the hip when approached with difficult or traumatic experiences of their students.”

According to a new report from the advocacy group Know Your IX, a survey of more than 100 students found that 20% of students who reported sexual violence to their school transferred schools, and nearly 10% dropped out entirely.

But she said Berkeley's progressive image also made it difficult for some to acknowledge that some students felt unsafe.

"Not only was there an assumption that students wouldn't face these issues at school, but there was a resistance to admit it could possibly be a problem," Ibrahim said. "It was sort of like, 'Well, this can't be us. We're Berkeley.' "

In response to demands from students made in 2014, the district said it expanded an advisory committee to create a comprehensive sexual harassment policy, held restorative justice circles for students who were targeted by sexual harassment and established a Title IX coordinator and compliance officer position.

A Lawsuit and a Sexual Assault Reported on Campus

But students say the problems continued. The district was sued by a student over its handling of a sexual assault allegation last year.

The lawsuit alleges a student was sexually assaulted by another student during school hours in an unlocked classroom at Berkeley High in 2019. It claims the district failed to take steps to adequately ensure the victim’s safety. KQED is identifying the student as "Faith" to protect her identity over concerns for her safety. In the lawsuit, she is identified as "Jane Doe."

Faith said she kept seeing her assailant on campus after the assault, and that he continued to sexually harass her. She said she had meltdowns for months.

“Usually, I’m a happy, goofy person. My teachers were just worried, and they would always just look at me and they’re like, ‘You look so sad,’ ” Faith said. “They would try to help me get back to how I used to be. And it was just hard.”

Faith, a former Berkeley High student, sued the district in January 2020 over its handling of her sexual assault allegations against a fellow student. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Eventually, Faith and her parents decided it was too much, and she transferred into an independent studies program. Attorneys for the district argued in a court filing that administrators worked with Faith to make sure she was safe, and they tried to limit the potential for contact between the two students. They said district personnel were responsive to Faith’s complaints.

Faith sued the district in January 2020 before she left Berkeley High the next month, and she said students at the school began talking about the case, trying to guess the identity of Jane Doe. She said it was scary, but that she also felt resilient knowing she had helped spark a larger conversation about safety on campus.

“I just want there to be a change, especially being a person of color. I became a person of color who was also assaulted,” Faith said. “It was just something I had to speak up on, because my voice is not heard by a lot of people.”

The Names on the Bathroom Stall

Some Berkeley High students had already thought the school had a culture where sexual misconduct was swept under the rug, but the lawsuit Faith filed seemed to break something open.

Days after the lawsuit was filed, a group of Berkeley High students began writing the names of alleged perpetrators on a bathroom stall. In black ink, they wrote “Boys To Watch Out 4,” followed by several names and the words “rapist” and “abuser."

Ayisha Friedman organized a walkout over sexual harassment and assault at Berkeley High in February 2020. (Courtesy of Ayisha Friedman)

Ayisha Friedman, a senior at Berkeley High during this time, said she saw the list during first or second period. Reading the list, Friedman thought about her friends who’d been harassed or assaulted.

“I was always seeing somebody who had done something or experienced something or a hallway where something had been done. It's always on your mind and it's always breaking your heart,” Friedman said.

Friedman said a lot of the boys were popular and known for inappropriate behavior around young women. She said the list was impossible to ignore. By the end of the school day, a picture of the stall had been shared on Instagram, and it felt like everyone in the school had seen it and had something to say.

“And that goes both ways. That goes people who were defending these women and who are saying, ‘I believe you, I am here for you,’ ” Friedman said. “And then people on the other side who were like, ‘Anybody could have written this. And this is a lie.’ ”

A Walkout Gets the District's Attention

Several students who spoke to KQED described a climate at the high school where victims who reported their assaults to administrators were questioned or doubted by their peers. Students wanted the school district to do more to support victims and keep them safe on campus. Friedman and others began organizing a walkout.

Mia Redmond, one of the organizers, reported her own sexual assault about a week before the walkout in February 2020.

"This was in the midst of a really hard situation. But we were all coming together and working on something that we really cared about," Redmond said.

She said she found a supportive community during a time when others were gossiping about her experience.

"It was so tense," said Sophia Kerievsky, another organizer and friend of Redmond. "I remember people were pointing at me in the courtyard, and just really attacking my character, and especially her character. It was this strange energy. It was a lot of girls who were standing up for her, and then a huge group of boys standing by his side."

Berkeley High School students organized a walkout in February 2020 to address sexual harassment and assault on campus. (Courtesy Mia Redmond)

The day of the walkout, Redmond wasn’t sure how many people would show up. So when she looked out at the courtyard, she was stunned by the support, and said the entire courtyard was filled with students, staff and administration.

“It made me feel like I wasn’t alone in it. At the time I was feeling a lot of lack of understanding,” Redmond said. “And it definitely gave me a group of people who I was like, ‘I can trust these people. These people support me, and I want to support these people.’ ”

A Practical and Philosophical Set of Demands

The students drafted up specific demands, such as more resources for the Title IX office handling misconduct complaints, expanded consent education and policies stating that perpetrators found to be guilty by the school would be suspended from school-sanctioned events. They wanted to create a culture where victims could heal, and for the school to continue the conversation long after they had graduated.

Superintendent Brent Stephens had begun working for the district less than a year before the walkout, and he said many of the students' requests were practical, and that change felt necessary. There had also been high turnover in the district's Title IX coordinator role, with at least six different people working in that position from 2015 to 2020.

The students, he said, had done their homework, and met with teachers, staff and adult advocates.

"And so when they came with a set of demands, they were sort of philosophical in nature, but they were very pragmatic as well," Stephens said. "It was ... a political moment, but it resonated with what I and many others saw as legitimate needs of the district."

The Conversation Continues Online

Just weeks after the walkout, schools shut down because of COVID-19. And as everyone focused on the pandemic, the momentum began to fade.

Then, Annette Kwon, a former Berkeley High student now at Branham High School in San Jose, decided to find another way to restart the conversation. Over the summer, she made a TikTok video showing the faces of alleged perpetrators at Berkeley High and Lowell High School in San Francisco.

Annette Kwon, a former Berkeley High student, created a TikTok video to continue a public conversation around sexual harassment and assault in high school. (Courtesy Annette Kwon)

“When the quarantine started, everything died down,” she said. “And I just felt like it was necessary that the topic stays relevant, because if it had faded out once again, nothing would change.”

The video received over 100,000 views, and soon students throughout the Bay Area launched Instagram accounts for people to post their experiences of harassment and assault anonymously.

Mia Redmond remembered seeing dozens of stories of harassment and assault posted on an Instagram account called BHS Protectors.

“It just felt like everyone was coming together again, and addressing the issue again that we had done in February,” Redmond said. “It was powerful to see not only so many people at Berkeley High being able to tell their stories, that they couldn’t talk about before, but also other schools following that, too.”

But for others, the account was also overwhelming, especially during a pandemic that left so many people isolated.

"A lot of people were like, 'I'm in a pandemic, I'm in my room 24/7. This is already messing with my mental health. And everyday I open my Instagram and I'm reminded of my own trauma,' " said Ayisha Friedman, another walkout organizer, of people she knew who had seen the account. "Where does the conversation go? You're stuck in your room with no support.”

Trish McDermott, a spokesperson for the Berkeley Unified School District, said in a statement that administrators reached out to those who posted about incidents of sexual harm, discrimination or racism, and those who were named in the posts. She said administrators also informed police and Child Protective Services about the account and specific allegations that could be traced to any students.

The account has since been removed, and now students who participated in the walkout are hoping some of the cultural shifts inspired by their organizing will last when the pandemic is over.

District Announces Changes, and the Culture Begins to Shift

Ultraviolet Schneider-Dwyer, a senior at Berkeley High, said that before the walkout a lot of the incidents of harassment and assault occurred during parties where young people were too intoxicated to consent. She's hopeful her peers will no longer tolerate that culture after so many students shared their experiences of abuse.

“There will be more social consequences than there are administrative or academically,” she said. “At the same time, I’m just making sure that they’re not doing it out of fear of not being accepted, but they’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do."

Now, Mia Redmond is a part of a committee to give students a chance to provide the school with input on issues like harassment and consent education. She feels like the district is taking students’ demands seriously. She’s graduating this year and plans to continue her advocacy after high school. And she said it will be up to future generations of Berkeley High students as well as administrators to make sure the changes she and others started will last.

“I can’t say for certain whether [the walkout] changed the culture at Berkeley High, but it definitely brought up a conversation that wasn’t being had before,” Redmond said. “It was such a monumental thing in Berkeley High history that everyone who experienced it, they’re not going to forget about it.”

This story was reported in collaboration with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. It was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund.

[This story was originally published by KQED.]  

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