More than 50 students and parents attended the Feb. 8 School Board meeting to ask the district for a stronger response to sexual harassment claims. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Dozens of members of Berkeley High School’s BHS Stop Harassing club poured into the Berkeley school board meeting Wednesday night to demonstrate their frustration with the district’s response to recent incidents of sexual harassment.

Earlier in the evening, the board appointed a new Title IX coordinator and compliance officer, attorney Dana Clark, to oversee the investigation of all harassment claims.

During the public comment period, BHS junior Charlotte Wesley and other students read a statement Wesley wrote about a harassment experience that made her fearful of attending class and led her to enroll in Independent Study.

In early December, Wesley told the board, a classmate showed her a group text message between him and his friends. The message thread included a text threatening to rape one of Wesley’s friends, as well as links to nude photos and a sexual video of others.

Wesley, who stopped attending school for a month last year after being sexually assaulted, said she again felt “unsafe and betrayed.” She asked to see the friend’s phone and took screenshots of the texts, which she sent to her friends and showed a BHS teacher and administrator.

“All the girls targeted experienced retaliation,” Wesley said in her statement. “We were stared down, yelled at, called ‘stupid bitch,’ and laughed at in the hallway and before and after school.” Wesley said the boys involved in the text vandalized her car and threw eggs at her home, prompting her mother to consider selling the house. Wesley has stopped going to the classes where she would see the boys involved in the text.

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Wesley said the district should do more to protect her and other victims of harassment and assault. She suggested a policy of collecting homework for victims who have to miss class. She also said the district should have told her its plan immediately.

“It’s been 60 days—no restorative justice, no full safety plan, no academic accommodations, absolutely no closure,” she said. “Because I chose to stand up for what’s right, I have paid the price socially, academically, and emotionally.”

BUSD issued a statement Friday calling it “an extremely complicated and sensitive case involving two dozen students.” The BHS administrative staff, as well as staff from the main office, have been actively investigating the case “deliberately and carefully with the rights of all students considered,” for the last two months, according to Charles Burress, a BUSD spokesman. However, since it does involve students, the district cannot comment on the particulars of the case, he said.

Burress said the district is committed to shining light on issues of sexual harassment and using restorative justice, when possible, “to repair the harm done to victims of sexual misconduct.”

“We have long stressed that providing a safe learning environment for all students is the number one priority of our district and school staff,” the statement reads. “We have been working closely with student leaders and organizations, such as BHS Stop Harassing, in peer education and outreach. Teachers and staff have on-going training in our district policies and best practices for supporting students and reporting incidents. We continue to remind staff and families of the importance of talking to our students about harassment and bullying, and we are providing more information and training for students as well. In November, assemblies were held at BHS, organized by the BHS Stop Harassing student group and supported by BHS staff, in order to provide students with tools from Futures Without Violence, including these downloadable Teen Safety Card, as well as Who’s Got Your Back?

BHS Stop Harassing was formed in 2014 in response to other instances of harassment and cyber bullying. BHS students created the club to raise awareness among their peers of the prevalence of harassment on campus and to put pressure on the administration to respond to it.

A few years earlier, a district Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee was created and charged in part with writing a new sexual harassment policy. The creation of a new policy was put on hold when, in 2015, the federal Office for Civil Rights began investigating whether BUSD had responded adequately to sexual harassment claims at BHS. Per OCR’s recommendation, the board approved an interim updated policy in April 2015 created by the California School Boards Association.

The ongoing OCR investigation was prompted by a complaint letter from Heidi Goldstein, a member of the district’s sexual harassment committee and a parent advisor to BHS Stop Harassing.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, president Ty Alper told BHS Stop Harassing that the board hears its demands.

The Title XI coordinator position, he said, was created in part because of the “fierce advocacy of many people in this room.”

Clark brings significant experience to the district, said Burress. She has developed and implemented compliance and accountability systems, and “has worked on social and environmental justice issues at the international, national, and local levels.”

“It will be the job of the Title IX coordinator to coordinate the prompt, effective, and equitable investigation and timely resolution of all complaints alleging sexual misconduct, discrimination, bullying and other complaints filed with the district, and also to work with staff, students, and parents on effective, research-based strategies to prevent instances of harassment and bullying in the first place, which is of course our goal,” said the BUSD statement.

School Board adopts interim sexual harassment policy (04.10.15)
Feds launch civil-rights investigation in Berkeley School District’s 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)

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,...