Advocates working to raise awareness about sexual harassment faced by Berkeley Unified students asked the Berkeley City Council for its support Tuesday night, saying the school district has not done enough to respond to ongoing problems faced by students, or comply with mandatory rules.
City officials said they were sympathetic to the group but could not take a position until the Board of Education has a chance to respond. Officials asked city staff to bring the matter to the School Board’s attention, and said they would consider revisiting the topic down the line.
On the Sept. 15 agenda was a resolution submitted to council by the city’s Peace & Justice Commission, which voted earlier this year to send the resolution to council and the board. The resolution was in support of the BHS Stop Harassing group’s work, and outlined the problem as described by the group.
According to the commission’s report, the Berkeley Unified School District did not adequately address the sexual harassment of a student by a school administrator in 2010, when allegations arose related to inappropriate touching and suggestive remarks made to a student by a BHS counselor.
In that case, the district settled in 2011-12 with the impacted family and agreed, among other remedies, to improve the language in the BUSD handbook related to sexual harassment, create an advisory committee to tackle the policy issue, and improve training for parents related to the subject.
“Since then, numerous students have been the victims of sexual harassment or sexual violence by other students. The lack of a comprehensive and up-to-date policy, including the procurement and the use of existing programs, tools, and training to prevent and remedy such situations is not acceptable,” the commission wrote.
Last November, BHS Stop Harassing began raising awareness about the issue, describing “big problems at Berkeley High when it comes to sexual harassment.” In January, the federal government launched a civil rights investigation into the sexual harassment claims.
According to a 2015 report by Equal Rights Advocates, which surveyed 116 Bay Area school districts regarding Title IX compliance and harassment procedures, “harassment based on sex is still a common and harmful phenomenon in K-12 schools, and it has a particularly negative impact on girls.”
Said one Berkeley High student who was quoted in the report, “Sexual harassment happens on a daily basis at school. But until we all learn about sexual harassment, we don’t even know what to call it. It’s just life.”
Said another, “The culture at BHS is one where girls’ bodies are out on display. Everyone I know has experienced something, an incident.”
The School Board and school district have taken a number of steps over the past year to address the problem, and School Board President Judy Appel said the district is moving in the right direction. In spring 2014, the district created a Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee to craft a comprehensive sexual harassment policy. The committee created a preliminary policy, adopted by the School Board in April, and plans to strengthen it after it receives guidance related to the federal complaint, Appel said this week.
Over the past year, the district has sent numerous communications related to sexual harassment to teachers, students and families. In August, the district distributed a handout to staff related to how to respond to sexual harassment reports. In addition, various training sessions related to harassment have been attended by district staffers and employees, and the district has updated its Parent Student Handbook “to reflect new information related to sexual harassment.”
As recently as this month, an expanded Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee — including parents, staff from middle and high schools, and high school students — met to discuss the latest developments as far as the district’s work related to sexual harassment.
“We are really proud of the students who came forward and, in fact, they have had great impact on our work around sexual harassment,” Appel said. “The district has done so much in the last year. It’s just not true we haven’t done anything in 5.5 months.”
The School Board has not, however, put the Peace & Justice Commission’s resolution in support of BHS Stop Harassing on its agenda for a public discussion. In emails between Appel and Peace & Justice Commissioner George Lippman, Appel said it was “unfortunate” that the commission had not informed the board of its discussion related to BHS Stop Harassing prior to the adoption of its resolution, so the board and district could participate.
Appel told Lippman the district had taken numerous steps to respond to concerns raised by BHS Stop Harassing, and said it would continue to do so.
“Certainly, there is more to do to make our schools bias free and fully safe learning climates in which our students can thrive, and I am passionate about doing that work in achieving this goal,” she wrote.
There was no mention, however, of putting the resolution on the board’s agenda. Appel said this week the district’s work will continue but made no mention of bringing the resolution itself before the board.
She said she had confirmed to Lippman, earlier this year, that the resolution had been received, and that he apologized for not bringing the district into the loop prior to the commission’s vote.
“I thought that was resolved,” she said, in response to whether the board would consider the resolution.
Three parents connected to BHS Stop Harassing told council Tuesday night that the district has not done enough to fix the problem.
Heidi Goldstein, an advisor to the group and parent of a Berkeley High student, told council she “had hoped to engage in lively discourse this evening on the Resolution, largely because BUSD has had this resolution for nearly 5 months with no action. We are concerned they will continue to ignore it and the issues are too important to ignore.”
She said the resolution “calls for action, leadership and accountability to substantially improve the culture in the Berkeley schools around sexual harassment,” and described the district’s actions to date as “a mix of tepid, ‘check the box’ compliance that has repeatedly overlooked the injustices visited on students who have been forced to endure a hostile learning environment that violates both their civil rights and entitlement to participate in an educational setting free of fear and intimidation.”
Goldstein said the district has not been aggressive enough in hiring a Title IX compliance officer — currently vacant — to make sure the district is following federal laws related to gender discrimination, and said the district should not wait for feedback related to the federal complaint before “taking more definitive steps.”
Another Berkeley High parent and advisor to BHS Stop Harassing, Rebecca Levenson, told council about some of the experiences she has had in the past year.
“Students told me about being called a slut, a whore, seeing pictures of their friends and themselves on social media —with horrible captions, sometimes clothed, sometimes nude, sometimes passed out,” she said. “They told me stories of helping a friend after she was thrown down a flight of stairs by her boyfriend at a party. They told me about having sex they didn’t want to have because they were afraid to say no. They told me everything you never want to hear a kid say.”
Levenson, too, said the school district has not taken strong enough steps forward.
“As someone who has worked in this field for 25 years, they haven’t done anything more than check boxes,” she told council. “We need evidenced based programming, we need to do real primary prevention education specific to sexual harassment and violence and we need to teach students and staff how to intervene when they see it.”
Peggy Scott, a member of the Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee, told council the district has not, as of last week, posted mandatory notices related to nondiscrimination at Berkeley High. She, too, said the district was out of compliance due to the vacant Title IX coordinator position.
“The district fails to comply with federal law in other ways too,” she said. “There is a failure to follow up on complaints. There is a failure to follow up on retaliation against a complainant. There is a failure to conduct impartial investigations.”
Council members Linda Maio and Darryl Moore said School Board members said they would like to weigh in on the issue before council voted in support of the resolution. Moore said the resolution could come back to council later.
Said Maio, “After we’ve had testimony tonight, we’ve gotten the attention of the school district and the board. We’re looking forward, at least I am, to getting some concrete information and progress on this item.”
The resolution, with a recommendation to vote in favor of it, had been on council’s action calendar. Council voted instead to refer the item to the School Board for consideration, without taking a position on the resolution.
Board President Appel said this week that the board is “working diligently” to tackle the problem, and taking the issue very seriously.
“School safety, and addressing bias and harassment of all kinds, is a top priority in the district,” she said. “If you look, we’re doing more than the vast majority of districts in the state and maybe in the country.”
Appel described “a very broad scale training” completed by all BUSD teachers related to sexual harassment, and said secondary principals had been given a guide regarding how to support and respond sensitively to students who come forward with complaints.
In response to the vacant Title IX coordinator position, Appel said the district had made an offer to someone who later declined it, and is in the process of interviewing new candidates for the position.
Appel said the district hopes to work collaboratively with BHS Stop Harassing, and had been surprised to learn that the group had taken the resolution to council.
“The idea that we’re resistant to change, it couldn’t be more far from the truth,” she said. “For the seniors who graduated last year and the current students: They are being effective. I don’t want them to feel that they’re beating their heads against the wall. We hear it and we’re taking action.”
See BUSD resources related to Title IX and sexual harassment. Connect with BHS Stop Harassing on Facebook.
BHS anti-harassment student group wins award, celebrates with Patricia Arquette (06.12.15)
School Board adopts interim sexual harassment policy (04.10.15)
Feds launch civil rights investigation into BUSD response to sexual harassment claims (02.10.15)
Students target sexual harassment at Berkeley High (11.21.14)
Op-ed: Sexual harassment at Berkeley High must stop (11.17.14)
Berkeley high sexual harassment case close to settling (12.08.11)
Berkeley High harassment case heading to settlement (07.21.11)
BHS sexual harassment case taken to federal court (04.22.11)
Government to assess Berkeley High harassment case (12.07.10)
BHS harassment case settles, leaves open questions (10.29.10)
BUSD decision appealed in BHS harassment case (9.21.10)
Restraining order served on Berkeley High counselor (9.16.10)
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