Berkeley High School community speaks out on sexual assault allegations at school district meeting

Kaleo Mark/Staff

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Editor’s note 2/11/2020: the defendants’ names have been removed from this article following concerns about minors’ privacy.

Berkeley High School, or BHS, students and administration spoke out about recent sexual assault allegations and their impact on the community at Wednesday’s Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, meeting.

A Jan. 31 lawsuit filed against BUSD by a BHS student, titled Jane Doe v. Berkeley Unified School District, alleges that BUSD employees were neglectful of sexual assault allegations brought to their attention.

According to the lawsuit, Doe reported her assault to a mandated reporter. In response, the mandated reporter alleged that the same assailant had assaulted six to 10 other girls at BHS, but they did not report Doe’s incident to the police or Child Protective Services. Another mandated reporter was then informed of Doe’s assault by the other mandated reporter, but failed to take action in a timely manner, the lawsuit alleged.

“I came to school today and I could feel the heaviness of my community right now,” said BUSD student director and BHS senior Estella Hemp at the meeting. “Many people are hurting, and there is a lot of room to improve, and this is on all of us.”

Hemp added that the culture in which sexual assault is allowed to persist is not just taught in school, but is built outside of campus — at parties, community events and especially on social media.

To better support victims, Hemp said the district should elevate its expectations for mandated reporters and better enforce consequences in cases of sexual assault.

“Admin, the board and especially the students at Berkeley … should uphold the promise to never forgive and forget, or turn a blind eye when it comes to sexual violence or violence of any kind,” Hemp said at the meeting.

BUSD director Julie Sinai, BUSD vice president Ty Alper and BUSD superintendent Brent Stephens voiced their support and appreciation for BHS community members’ advocacy.

Sinai thanked the students who came to the meeting, adding that she looked forward to tracking the issue and gaining a “better understanding” of how these cases are handled.

Nearing the end of the meeting, BHS principal Erin Schweng spoke about the ways in which she feels the culture at BHS needs to change. While there is no single response to help students cope with the damage and pain they are feeling, Schweng believes that repairing the harm done will take time and resources.

Schweng emphasized the importance of continually pushing for greater education about affirmative consent at every “grade level, every year.”

“I want us to be thoughtful and proactive and have a plan in place as we go forward into the years to come,” Schweng said at the meeting. “We are doing everything we can to make students feel safe at school, and that’s a really hard thing to do in cases like this.”

Kaleo Mark is a schools and communities reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @kaleomark_dc.