BHS Stop Harassing, a student-led grassroots organization, has been active in Berkeley since October 2014 when two significant events at Berkeley High School ignited student focus on the issue of harassment: the comments made at at an all-student assembly linking the manner in which female students dress to the treatment they can expect to receive, and the circulation of an online Instagram “slut page” known as Team 15 that included sexually disparaging remarks and degrading photographs of several female senior students. Concerned students and parents came together to discuss issues around sexual harassment and sex discrimination at BHS. We learned that the problem was pervasive. We heard about groping in the hallways, catcalls, indecent exposure in the bathrooms and stories of intimidation and sexual violence. In an interview with Equal Rights Advocates, one student said, “The culture at BHS is one where girls’ bodies are out on display. Everyone I know has experienced something, an incident.” Others chimed in that sexual harassment was “just life” at BHS and that female students could expect that being harassed and living with that sort of discomfort was the norm.
In December 2014 several brave young women testified at the Dec. 10 school board meeting, describing the unchecked harassment they had or were currently enduring at school, and how their attempts to get help had been brushed aside. They asked the school board for help — with their situations and to improve the climate at Berkeley schools. A member of the Berkeley Peace and Justice Commission (PJC) expressed shock and concern regarding these stories. Working together we determined that a resolution in support of the work of this student-led grassroots organization was warranted and that PJC would share the resolution in its capacity as an advisory body to both the Berkeley Unified School District and the Berkeley City Council. The PJC resolution in support of BHS Stop Harassing was transmitted to the BUSD and city council in early May.
We have been working with the BUSD since June 2014 on these issues, as members of the BUSD Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee (SHAC) and, later, as adult advisors to BHS Stop Harassing. Based on the testimony at the December school board meeting and numerous other incidents that have been brought to our attention over these recent months, it is clear that teachers and staff need to learn how to intervene and how to help a student who reports an incident of sexual harassment. Students need to learn how to handle a developing incident and understand their options for assistance if something happens to them. Most importantly, BUSD administrators need to learn how to adequately investigate and follow up on reports of sexual harassment in an impartial manner that includes due process for all parties, protects complainants from retaliation and adheres to federal guidelines.
In our view, the small steps BUSD has taken over the past 16 months to address processes of dealing with and prevention of sexual harassment have been inadequate.
A few examples:
- The BUSD processes in place today could mislead students to think that reporting an incident drives the same response as making a formal complaint. The recently adopted sexual harassment and uniform complaint procedure board policies (and their companion administrative regulations that determine implementation of the policies) lack clarity on the differences between how reports and complaints are handled.
- The full-time Title IX coordinator position funded by the school board remains unfilled today. A Title IX coordinator, a person who handles incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination, including investigations and resolution, is required at all educational institutions that receive federal funding. BUSD had been effectively without a Title IX coordinator since 2009, and possibly much earlier, until an interim appointment was made in December 2014 when this was brought to the attention of the superintendent and school board at a public meeting. The interim staffer already holds a position with job responsibilities that are in direct conflict with the requirements of the coordinator role and has been unable to devote sufficient attention to the issues.
- Some teachers allege that a recent 90-minute training session for Berkeley High School teachers and staff about sexual harassment seemed to replicate almost exactly the optional sessions offered to high school seniors last May. Many teachers at BHS feel inadequately prepared to handle issues of sexual harassment. The training they need must include case studies and role-play to enable them to effectively intervene and act when they witness incidents of student harassment. A job aid entitled Sexual Harassment: Basic Responsibilities for Staff was distributed to teachers at the start of the school year and caused many teachers to question the adequacy of their skills to handle these issues.
There must be a standard of action that improves the climate around sexual harassment at BUSD schools and makes students safer at school. Our standard calls for actions that facilitate real assistance when an issue arises, including a clear grievance process that is easy for students to navigate and that lays out what they can expect. Similarly, we are calling for robust, evidence-based, structured education for teachers, staff and students in all grades that will help them understand how to prevent and de-escalate harassment in the future.
We are eager for both BUSD and the city council to consider the resolution because it describes, amongst other things, the urgent — and unmet — need for students, teachers and staff in the BUSD to receive comprehensive training. This is something the BUSD can and must act on immediately by taking real steps — not “check the box” compliance actions — to ensure that no student feels unsafe at school because of harassment or discrimination, sexual or otherwise. The city council can, and should, weigh in as an independent body on this issue. Councilmembers should both support and urge their colleagues at BUSD to act, because this issue affects the entire community and Berkeley’s reputation as a good place to live and go to school.
Heidi Goldstein and Rebecca Levenson are both parents of students at BUSD schools, including Berkeley High School. They are also adult advisers to BHS Stop Harassing and members of the BUSD Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee (SHAC). They may be reached through the contacts page of the BHS Stop Harassing website: stopharassing.org.
A previous version of this op-ed omitted one of the co-authors, Rebecca Levenson.