The student leaders of an anti-sexual harassment campaign model the t-shirts they'll distribute on campus. Photo: Brea Kaye
The student leaders of an anti-sexual harassment campaign model the t-shirts they will distribute on campus. Photo: Brea Kaye

Earlier this year, some male students at Berkeley High School created “slut accounts” on Instagram. The accounts included photos of female students with misogynistic, sexual captions. A number of the instigators were suspended as a result. However, a group of students who have launched an anti-sexual harassment campaign on campus say the punishment doesn’t help curb the culture that set the stage for the incident in the first place.

Similarly, the student campaigners, mostly juniors and seniors, say the policy and preventive actions finally being taken in the wake of sexual assaults on college campuses nationwide are happening too late in students’ lives.

The group has launched “BHS Stop Harassing” with a goal to educate its peers about inappropriate behavior and where they can seek help — and to eventually improve what it perceives to be the vastly inadequate sexual harassment policy and preventive education at Berkeley High.

Last week the student organization created a GoFundMe page to raise money for t-shirts with slogans like “Stop blaming my body for your harassment. Thanks” and “This is what an ally looks like.” Within a week they had exceeded their goal of $4,000.

On Monday and Tuesday, the students will distribute 500 shirts and 1,000 pins at a public “teach-in” just off campus and will encourage everyone to wear them the following Monday, Dec. 1.

They have also created social media pages and the hashtag #bhsstopharassing to promote the campaign, and, down the line, hope to lead workshops in classrooms.

“One of our main goals is to teach people,” said Maya Siskin-Lavine, a BHS junior involved in the group. “I know for a fact that a lot of the guys that I respect as my peers just don’t know that a lot of things are sexual harassment. They think catcalling is flattering and that what I wear should affect how guys treat me.”

The campaign aims to raise campus awareness of sexual harassment and improve preventive measures including increasing formal education relating to the issue.
The campaign aims to raise awareness on the Berkeley High campus of sexual harassment and demand better policy. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The student organizers have always been bothered by their peers’ daily sexist comments and behavior — and what they see as the administration’s neglect or mistreatment of these issues — but a couple of recent events prompted them to take action, including the Instagram “slut” account.

Speaking about the student suspensions that followed that incident, Sarah Carlin, a junior and member of the group, said: “I don’t think people’s actions are going to change a lot or how they perceive women is going to change just because they had to miss school for a few days. I think if we get people to understand why it’s so detrimental to girls, they would stop doing it.”

Sami Kuderna-Reeves, a senior who was a target of a slut account, said the painful experience was exacerbated by the administration’s unsatisfactory response when she reported it.

“It was all male security guards and all male police officers, and to a certain degree they can’t understand or relate,” Kuderna-Reeves said. “They were trying to help but what they kept getting at was, ‘Well is that true? Did you do blank?’”

The campaign leaders were also aggravated by a series of back-to-school assemblies that dealt with the school dress code.

“The dress code was presented in such a way that it came across as, ‘If you don’t dress respectfully and don’t respect yourself, other people won’t respect you either,’” said senior Liana Thomason, one of the campaign leaders. “And then they went on to present about sexual harassment, so it almost came across as, ‘If you don’t dress like this, this won’t happen to you.’”

Female students were told to think about whether their mothers would allow them to leave the house wearing an outfit, the students say.

“I got really upset about it because it was pretty much saying what you wear determines how much self-worth you hold for yourself,” said Kuderna-Reeves, who stood up in the audience and confronted the staff speaker.

The students will encourage their classmates to wear the shirts and pins on Dec. 1. Photo: Facebook
The students will encourage their classmates to wear the shirts and pins on Dec. 1. Photo: Facebook

BHS Stop Harassing, which has met weekly for the past month and has rapidly expanded beyond the initial ten members, has the support and encouragement of two adult advisors.

Thomason’s mother Heidi Goldstein, and Rebecca Levenson, another BUSD parent and a policy analyst who works in the realm of sexual violence at the nonprofit Futures Without Violence, both have daughters who experienced sexual harassment and battery at a BUSD middle school.

Goldstein and Levenson both serve on a committee created to update the district’s sexual harassment policy. The as-yet-unsuccessful attempt has been “the most unfortunate and egregious experience of my adult life,” Levenson said.

The mothers initially took up the cause “because we had things that touched our families,” Goldstein said. “What came from that involvement very quickly was the realization that there just was no education for anybody,” including staff, teachers, and students.

When they deemed the administration’s response ineffective, they encouraged the students to approach the issue themselves. They also had an op-ed on the subject published on Berkeleyside.

“This is a way to say to the students, ‘You have some rights here that you can exercise, there’s some education to be done here that you should be demanding,’” Goldstein said. “When the students raise their voices about something, the administration listens.”

The student group plans eventually to challenge what they understand to be violations of Title IX. This includes reactive versus preventive measures, insufficient security, unsatisfactory long-term protection for assault survivors, as well as a lack of staff training, Goldstein said.

BUSD staff did not return Berkeleyside’s repeated requests for comment on this issue.

Hasmig Minassian, a BHS history teacher and co-leader of the Communication Arts and Sciences small school there, said that as a staff member she would love some professional development around sexual harassment and “how to help adolescents navigate some pretty tumultuous social dynamics.”

Minassian is informally involved with BHS Stop Harassing, and has previously sought Levenson’s help in addressing the harmful behavior she witnesses in her classroom — which she attributes largely to ignorance and confusion.

She sees the upcoming selection of a new Berkeley High principal — the school is currently led by interim principal Kristin Glenchur who is on medical leave until after Thanksgiving — as an opportunity.

“I think what this campaign will do more than anything is it will alert the School Board and alert the superintendent that these issues are real and they’re not going away,” she said. “And as they think about building a new leadership team for Berkeley High in the coming year, they need to pick someone who is an expert in these issues.”

Initially a little worried about the social backlash, the student organizers have been thrilled by the positive response among their peers and the community. The group has begun to discuss a collaboration with the city’s Commission on the Status of Women and the Peace and Justice Commission.

Other students were never concerned about their peers’ potential reaction to the campaign and t-shirts.

“I’ve stopped caring. I was publicly put on Instagram being called a whore. When you experience that first-hand it just makes you feel so awful,” Kuderna-Reeves said. “You start to think, ‘Is that true? People perceive me like that, so am I like that?’ Nobody should ever feel like that for sexual behavior. Now I just want to help other girls. At this point you already think I’m a slut, so it could mean less to me if you think I’m a big mouth walking around wearing this shirt.”

Op-ed: Sexual harassment at Berkeley High must stop (11.17.14)

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...