Berkeley High School students protest in light of lawsuit

Sunny Shen/Staff

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Hundreds of students at Berkeley High School, or BHS, staged a walkout Feb. 11 in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault and sexual violence and to call upon the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, to better resource schools.

BHS senior and organizer of the walkout, Ayisha Friedman, alleged that the school’s “rape culture” has existed since her parents attended BHS. Friedman added that this protest was “long overdue.”

“The administration and the school board and the district, in general, does very little to support survivors of sexual assault and harassment,” Friedman alleged. “Basically this protest is one: to stand in solidarity with those who have been living with this for so long and two: to really scare the district and the administration into agreeing to these terms.”

Fliers handed out at the protest listed seven of the protesters’ demands, including the replacement of the contracted Title IX coordinator with a full-time Title IX “expert compliance officer,” requiring the implementation of “Coaching Boys to Men,” training staff and teachers on sexual harm, hiring two restorative justice staff with expertise in dealing with sexual harm to be present at BHS full time and teaching all students about consent beginning in the sixth grade.

The flyer indicated that the current list is “dynamic and purposefully vague” to allow for a more extensive list with an action plan that will be provided at the BUSD board meeting Feb. 19.

The walkout takes place in the midst of a lawsuit filed in January by a BHS student claiming that BUSD employees were negligent in supervising students.

While BUSD cannot comment on the current lawsuit, BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott said the educators named are “dedicated educators with strong professional histories.”

“These are only allegations — nothing has been proven,” McDermott said.

At about 9:30 a.m., students marched from BHS to the BUSD building chanting “My body my choice,” “I believe her,” “Consent is sexy,” “The students, united, will never be defeated” and “Hear us loud, hear us clear, rape culture’s not welcome here,” as passing drivers honked to show support for the protest.

Upon arrival at the district’s building, demonstrators filled the halls of the first floor before making their way upstairs.

Protesters then gathered in the district board chambers where an open dialogue was held between students and BUSD superintendent Brent Stephens.

“We are here, our ears are open and we are committed to working with you to make positive change come out of this moment,” Stephens said at the protest to the crowd of students. “I take seriously that I am accountable to all of you and I have a job to do on your behalf and this is the start of those interactions.”

Students then aired their grievances with the district and further divulged the details of their demands.

BHS student Penina Biddle-Gottesman said students will campaign for administrators’ reelections and get their parents to vote for them if they help implement their goals.

Stephens made it clear that BUSD is committed to ongoing conversations with students on these issues, according to McDermott.

“I found that students were looking for a legacy — they want to see change happen,” McDermott said. “After the students spoke, the superintendent stood up and stated that he believed what they were saying. He felt very touched on a human level.”

While BUSD does not have a timeline on meeting the demands of the students, McDermott said the Feb. 11 budget meeting was the beginning of it.

At the meeting, an assessment of Title IX funding, staff and student training and other resources was up for discussion among district leaders and other interested parties.

McDermott said Stephens has reached out to other East Bay superintendents for advice and believes that the process for change will be a “collaborative experience.”

The Feb. 10 and Feb. 11 walkouts were treated like a “typical absence,” according to McDermott, in which parents could call in their students’ absences. BUSD, however, does not have any plans in place for further action or consequences if walkouts continue.

BHS junior Sophia Stilphen said protests like the Feb. 11 walkout are vital — when survivors feel supported, it is easier for them to share their stories, get support and receive justice.

“There are so many survivors here, including myself, and it’s insane, like I had no idea how many people had gone through this,” Stilphen said. “It’s a good thing people are angry because there should be social consequences for rapists.”

Contact Julie Madsen and Kaleo Mark at [email protected].