Berkeley High School students share sexual assault experiences, outline safety demands at school district meeting

Kaleo Mark/Staff

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Berkeley High School, or BHS, students recounted firsthand experiences with sexual assault at Berkeley Unified School District’s meeting Feb. 19, outlining their demands to promote student safety.

The students’ direct engagement with Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, board members has been anticipated since BHS students staged protests Feb. 10 and Feb. 11. During these protests, students expressed solidarity with victims of sexual assault and called upon BUSD to provide more resources to address these issues.

“We have been walking out, marching and showing up to show our commitment to this cause,” said BHS junior Isadora De Liberty at the meeting. “We need you to show your commitment as well. None of us want to graduate in a year or two for things to go back to the way they were with no progress made.”

Several female students then took to the podium to share their experiences.

Though each told their own story, many of their appeals to the board echoed similar themes. More specifically, they asked for better consent education, the hiring of specialized Title IX and restorative justice staff, regular staff training on reporting practices and a new Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee.

Angela Coppola, who has taught at BHS for nine years, said she cannot recall having an in-person training with a professional about student safety.

Every year, she and her co-workers go through the same online reporter training that addresses childhood abuse and neglect. Coppola added, however, that the training does not cover harm occurring on campus or situations in which one student harms another.

At the meeting, Coppola pointed to the most “painful time” in her teaching career, when two female students reported a rape threat to her. The girls subsequently left the school, while the boys remained, some of whom were taking her class, Coppola said.

“I teach my students that Anita Hill is a hero. I admire her courage, and I couldn’t keep my own Anita Hills in the classroom,” Coppola said at the meeting. “The things you heard tonight, I hear all the time in my classroom, and I sit with that weight at the end of every day.”

After public comment, board members and BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens responded to the students’ experiences and demands.

BUSD board member Beatriz Leyva-Cutler stressed the importance of creating safe spaces for students to heal and feel comforted, adding that students’ efforts are particularly important to her, as she experienced sexual assault in her early 20s.

“I understand the imprint it leaves on your person,” Leyva-Cutler said at the meeting. “It is still with me, and I am 64.”

As the meeting came to a close, Stephens presented possible budget reductions. Despite broader cuts to programs and staffing, $341,000 is anticipated to go toward supporting students who have experienced sexual harassment.

“I need those in power to use their resources towards protecting girls before and after they are assaulted,” said BHS junior Sophia Kerievsky at the meeting. “It is not too late for future generations. So I ask you to hear these demands so that girls in the Berkeley school district no longer have to walk into their education with a target on their back.”

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