Student group protests sex harassment, assault policies at school district board meeting

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Members of BHS Stop Harassing piled into the Berkeley Unified School District board meeting Wednesday to protest the district’s policies and processes regarding sexual harassment and assault.

During the meeting, students spoke before the board and read out the story of former Berkeley High School student Tori Burns and her experience as a survivor of sexual assault and harassment at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School and later Berkeley High School. Members of the group wore shirts that read “Stop blaming my body for your harassment” and carried signs with phrases such as “BUSD Violates Title IX” and “she’s not the only one” while students read out Burns’ story.

The students detailed how Burns was forced to repeatedly confront her harasser as a freshman at Berkeley High, despite informing administration of their encounters, leading Burns to feel unsafe and dread going to school.

According to Heidi Goldstein, an adult advisor for BHS Stop Harassing, the group has gone before the board multiple times with stories of various students in the school district who have experienced sexual harassment or assault and faced problems with administration in handling their cases.

“Every girl who comes here comes here because she wants to tell her story. She comes here because she has had trouble being heard by the current system of policies and processes that you have in place here at this school district,” Goldstein said at the meeting. “These are policies and processes that give a pass to perpetrators. These are policies and processes that rely on remedy systems that don’t exist.”

During public comment, various community members also spoke before the board to express support for BUSD teacher Yvette Felarca after an eight-month-old petition calling for Felarca to be fired recently resurfaced. The petition garnered thousands of signatures after Felarca appeared on Fox News on Feb. 13 in an interview on Tucker Carlson Tonight.

Felarca said at the meeting that she had been made a target of supporters of Donald Trump and followers of Fox News and urged the board to not “give in” to pressures from the right wing. Felarca was put on administrative leave in September 2016 after a video surfaced of her reportedly punching a white nationalist during a protest in Sacramento in June.

“It’s really important to me as a parent in this community that people outside of the district who have white supremacist tendencies not be given a voice in our district in any way whatsoever,” said Selena Ellis, a parent of a BUSD student, at the meeting.

BUSD board directors Judy Appel and Beatriz Levya-Cutler expressed appreciation and support for the students and members of BHS Stop Harassing who had shared their experiences during public comment.

“I’m committed to finding ways to work with you in our district in effectively improving our protections for our students in cases of sexual harassment and bullying,” Cutler said at the meeting. “Safety is an important priority for our district, I know it is. I know that we can do better, and I’m committed to that.”

Sydney Fix is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sydney_fix.