‘Like a dungeon’: Man alleges abuse at Malcolm X Elementary School

photo of malcolm x middle school
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A man filed a lawsuit May 16 alleging sexual abuse when he attended Malcolm X Elementary School. According to the complaint, the alleged perpetrator has since died and is thus not a defendant in the lawsuit.

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Content warning: sexual assault and harassment

An anonymous plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Berkeley Unified School District on May 16, alleging sexual abuse when he was a fifth grader at Malcolm X Elementary School more than 25 years ago.

The man, named “John Roe” in the complaint, alleged that a detention supervisor nonconsensually groomed, touched and performed oral sex on him repeatedly during the 1995–96 school year. According to Roe’s lawyer, Rachel Liebert, the alleged abuse was enabled by the absence of other adults, and typically other students, from the ground-floor room where Roe was frequently held.

“He describes it like a dungeon,” Liebert said. “There was no kind of check on what was going on in this isolated room where my client was really detained and punished in more ways than any student should be.”

Roe, who was approximately 10 years old at the time, alleged in his complaint the district negligently failed to prevent abuse and had improperly supervised, trained and investigated the detention supervisor. The complaint further alleges that the district had negligently ignored “clear and obvious” signs of abuse and parents’ complaints of misconduct.

As a result of the alleged abuse, Roe suffered “long-term stress” and difficulties in maintaining trusting relationships, according to Liebert. If successful, damages sought by Roe could be in the millions of dollars, Liebert noted, adding that it is too early to say for certain the outcome of the case.

Liebert said she is also seeking to end adults’ one-on-one, unsupervised access to children within the district. She added she would like the district to properly inform staff of their reporting obligations under the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act.

“There is a pattern in this. These are never isolated incidents,” Liebert said. “Unfortunately, youth programs, and schools in particular, are hotbeds for predators.”

BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott declined to comment in an email. 

Since 2020, BUSD has faced protests and lawsuits brought by students and staff on sexual violence issues, along with the arrests of multiple BUSD-affiliated workers on charges for sexual offenses. A similar lawsuit filed in June 2021 alleged sexual abuse at Berkeley High School from two decades ago.

Liebert said that public awareness of sexual violence issues was a factor that helped her client, who is now 37, come forward. Another factor, Liebert added, was the passage of California’s Child Victims Act in 2019, which extends the period for victims of childhood abuse to file lawsuits to their 40th birthday or through the end of this year, whichever comes later.

The length of time since the alleged abuse has nevertheless limited the options available to Roe. The perpetrator of the alleged abuse has since died and is not a defendant in the suit, according to the complaint. Criminal charges also cannot be filed because the alleged perpetrator is dead, noted Angela Ruggiero, a spokesperson for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.

Liebert declined to specifically identify the alleged abuser for “strategic” purposes.

Although she recognized the challenges in bringing older cases and noted that Roe’s case could take years to resolve, Liebert still said the extended statute of limitations provided for by the Child Victims Act would provide justice and closure to her client and survivors of sexual abuse.

“The passage of time is really key for survivors, because sometimes that’s what they need to be able to face it,” Liebert said. “This gives them a really beautiful gift: the opportunity, if nothing else, to tell their story and seek public accountability and to right the wrong in some small way.”

Gabe Classon is a schools and communities reporter. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @gabeclasson.