BUSD faces sexual harassment and gender discrimination lawsuit

photo of Berkeley High School
Owen Mark/Staff
Three plaintiffs at Berkeley High School allege they were victims of sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination from a direct supervisor, following a 2019 lawsuit accusing the plant facilities operations manager of failing to stop harassment in the workplace.

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Three Berkeley High School, or BHS, female custodian workers filed a lawsuit April 18 against Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, alleging a failure to prevent against sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination in the workplace.

The plaintiffs, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, allege a direct supervisor harassed them based on their gender. This direct supervisor allegedly made comments that one of the plaintiffs should “fear” him because she knew “ ‘what would happen if I get you alone girl.’ ”

BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens said in a statement the district is not able to discuss details of this case.

“The district conducts careful investigations to understand such allegations and takes action when there is evidence of wrongdoing,” Stephens said in the statement. “BUSD feels confident that it took appropriate steps in the matter described in this lawsuit.”

The suit adds that the direct supervisor allegedly spoke in a condescending manner towards the plaintiffs, which according to the suit, was not common treatment towards their male counterparts.

Rebecca Kagin, a representative of the plaintiffs, said her clients are frightened but grateful they are able to speak up against the treatment they have allegedly faced in the workplace. She added that the #MeToo movement and the racial justice movements following George Floyd’s murder have empowered the plaintiffs to speak up.

“I believe our clients feel empowered to speak up from these movements,” Kagin said. “(The movements) make them aware that what they’re experiencing is unfair and unlawful.”

The suit maintains that when the plaintiffs reported the sexual harassment allegedly committed by the direct supervisor to the plant facilities operations manager, the operations manager allegedly mocked one of the plaintiffs.

This is not the first time the plant facilities operations manager has been involved in a sexual harassment lawsuit. In 2019, a lawsuit alleged the plant facilities operations manager participated in creating a sexually hostile work environment and failed to take steps to end harassment.

The plaintiffs said they experienced gender-based discrimination as they were allegedly assigned to clean the direct supervisor’s office whereas male co-workers were allegedly not regularly required to. In addition, the plaintiffs allege BUSD did not grant them the opportunity to oversee a summer cleaning team and apply to positions at different school sites but male co-workers were given these opportunities.

The direct supervisor and plant facilities operations manager could not be reached as of press time.

Abigail Lamoreaux, commissioner of women’s rights and equity and senior at BHS, noted though the student body at BHS is outraged and disgusted, they are not surprised that another lawsuit was filed against the district.

Kagin said she and the plaintiffs hope BUSD will increase more substantive sexual harassment gender discrimination training for their employees, and that female staff will get the opportunity to be mentored and viewed as leaders and contributors.

“(T)he past four years has held numerous cases against the district for their lack of responsibility and accountability when it comes to sexual harm,” Lamoreaux alleged in an email. “This allows our student body to be hyper aware in a sense of the harm that occurs, but it unfortunately normalizes it to a point where the shock seems to lessen with every case.”

Julie Madsen is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @Julie_Madsen_.